As everyone now knows, last week Sunday evening, United Airlines forcefully removed a passenger from one of their United Express branded aircraft.
The initial official statement from United Airlines was that they reluctantly had to remove a belligerent passenger from an overbooked flight, the passenger’s injuries were because the passenger fell and hurt himself, and the airline had every right to do so.
Before the week was over, the CEO of United admitted in a televised interview that the passenger had done nothing wrong – no violation of rules, regulations or laws, the flight was not overbooked, United violated its own Contract of Carriage with passengers and video showed that the “police” had violently assaulted the passenger and then lied about it on their official report. Further, the “police” were security guards who did not have authorization to board aircraft nor arrest anyone.
A week later we find people on social media using strongly worded comments echoing United’s initial public relations propaganda, and saying the uncooperative passenger was required to obey the (unlawful) directives of flight crew and had no rights. All of these statements we now know are not true.
BUT – this ilustrates the power of propaganda. Remember that the first propaganda message that people hear and see, even if shown as false, is the message that sticks.
United’s public relations staff know this and they certainly approved, if not wrote, the CEO’s comments. Their comments were cold hearted, passive-voiced, defamatory and lies.
While the situation turned into a fiasco, a surprising number of people have not progressed past the initial and false statements made by United and their executives! Some on social media make assertions and try to appeal to authority (typically the airline, the police, or their misunderstanding of FAA rules).
This illustrates the incredible power of propaganda to shape public perceptions – and how people, once shaped by propaganda, get stuck on stupid.
Afterword – some are calling this incident potentially the worst public relations fiasco in U.S. corporate history. United spent decades building its brand name and its catch phrase “Fly the Friendly Skies of United”. Now, their brand is trashed, their most famous catch phrase cannot be used again. The self inflicted damage to their brand is likely in the billions of dollars.
Corollary: Public relations staff demonstrated again that they must never be trusted. Which is odd: aren’t PR people supposed to control the message? Instead they botch up so often they inflict damage on themselves. No one in PR should be trusted – ever.