Home / Companies / United Airlines seat fiasco among worst corporate PR gaffes

Los Angeles/Michigan: When it comes to bad public relations, it’s pretty tough to top the sight of a United Airlines passenger being dragged, bloodied and screaming, from a flight.

The incident, including two attempts at apology by chief executive officer Oscar Munoz, has been airing on cable TV and raging on social media for days. But the fiasco is hardly the first self-inflicted corporate blunder. Munoz can take comfort that it’s happened to others, and in many cases the bosses didn’t lose their jobs, as our PR Tales From Hell illustrate.

Cheese sneeze

Over Easter week in 2009, two Domino’s Pizza employees in North Carolina posted a video on YouTube showing one sticking cheese up his nose and pretending to sneeze on a customer’s sandwich. With the clip reaching one million views, management fired the employees, sanitized the store and produced its own video with a formal apology from president Patrick Doyle.

The company’s response was to show outrage and take action, said Davia Temin, head of the New York-based crisis-management firm Temin & Co. CEO David Brandon kept his job and now runs Toys “R" Us Inc. Doyle succeeded him.

Poop deck

An engine-room fire crippled the Carnival Triumph cruise ship in 2013, leaving 3,100 guests adrift in the Gulf of Mexico without working plumbing. Sewage backed up into the passenger decks, earning the ship the nickname the “Poop Cruise."

While employees scrambled to the bring the vessel home, Carnival Corp. CEO Micky Arison took in a game of his Miami Heat basketball team. Four months later, Arison gave up the top job. He remains chairman and is still the largest shareholder of the company his father founded.

Rat tacos?

In 2007 TV news cameras caught images of rodents scurrying around a New York KFC-Taco Bell location. Parent Yum Brands Inc. closed the franchised restaurant, labelled it an isolated incident and blamed construction in the basement of the building.

Still, sales at other stores fell 11% in the first quarter afterward and the company replaced its chief marketing officer.

Back-seat driver

Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to apologize and pledged to “grow up" after Bloomberg in February published video of him yelling at a driver in a dispute over the ride-sharing company’s fare policy, the latest in a horrendous three-month run of controversies.

Kalanick has promised to hire a chief operating officer to keep him on course, while the company has vowed to outline diversity goals and publish the results of a sexual harassment investigation.

Jet blues

On Valentine’s Day 2007, storms left 130,000 JetBlue Airways Corp. passengers stranded, with some travellers stuck on the tarmac for up to 10 hours. CEO David Neeleman apologized profusely but three months later he was out the door, replaced by a new executive described as more of an “operations guy."

On Tuesday, his newest airline, Brazilian carrier Azul SA, raised $572 million in a US initial public offering and closed up 7.2% in its first day of trading. Neeleman used the day’s ceremony at the New York Stock Exchange to defend the industry’s overbooking of flights, the practice United initially said led to the confrontation on its flight this week.

Out of tune

United has had more than its share of customer service snafus, including a 2008 incident in which country singer Dave Carroll said the airline damaged his instrument. A song and video he produced about the incident, “United Breaks Guitars," went viral and has had almost 17 million views.

The company later apologized and sought permission to use the video for training. CEO Glenn Tilton remained with the carrier until its merger with Continental was completed in October 2010.

Carroll today speaks on customer service. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., he lamented United’s lack of remorse over the current incident. “I would have thought they’d make some advances, but seven years later now, the same sort of problem has emerged," he said in the interview. “I think it has to do with a culture in the company." Bloomberg

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