There's a lesson for any manager or exec in how United handled its PR nightmare

O'Hare Airport protest United AirlinesScott Olson/Getty ImagesUnited’s response to the incident sparked a backlash.

Recently, United Airlines hit some major turbulence after a video emerged of a passenger being forcibly dragged from a flight.

The company’s response to the incident further ignited public anger and even calls for a boycott.

United CEO Oscar Munoz initially apologised for having to “re-accommodate” the affected customer — who was left bloodied after being seized and pulled off of the overbooked flight. Subsequently, Munoz released an open letter to employees offering his support for United staffers and calling the customer “disruptive and belligerent.”

The damage was already done by the time that Munoz, who had won a prestigious communications award just weeks before the incident, released another statement officially apologizing to the passenger, Dr. David Dao. United’s stock took a hit in the aftermath, but analysts expect it to rebound.

So, how should have Munoz and United responded to the initial fallout (especially since, as Business Insider’s Bob Bryan reported, similar incidents could probably still happen in the future)? How can other leaders and companies avoid a similar misstep?

According to management expert and “The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough” author Subir Chowdhury, just apologizing in the beginning would have been a far better strategy.

“Any true leader should be able to apologise,” Chowdhury told Business Insider. “There’s nothing wrong with apologizing. People do make mistakes. It is not an ego game.”

However, he cautions, this course of action only applies to situations where a company or individual worker is clearly in the wrong. For example, he said, Whole Foods was right to stand by its employees after security footage showed that a customer had falsely accused them of putting a homophobic statement on a cake in the summer of 2016.

But when you’re at fault, beyond a doubt? Time to brace yourself.

He broke down a few major lessons other leaders can glean from the debacle:

Be thoughtful

When something happens and it becomes clear that your team or organisation is clearly at fault, it’s not time to get defensive.

Instead, be thoughtful. That means effectively listening to the aggrieved parties and trying to form some empathy for them.

“When I use the word thoughtfulness, I’m not saying that each leader needs to become Mother Teresa,” Chowdhury said. “It means putting yourself into that person’s shoes before you respond.”

Take responsibility straightaway

“For any true, good leader, whenever a major problem happens, the number one thing to do is take complete accountability,” Chowdhury said.

He said that goes double for firms within service industries, like United Airlines. Chowdhury points to the example of GM CEO Mary Barra, who took full responsibility after the auto company was forced to recall millions of vehicles in February 2014 due to faulty ignition switches. She also apologised the victims of accidents caused by the vehicles, as Bloomberg reported.

The key thing is timing. Accepting full responsibility after directing blame at other parties just won’t ring true.

“Right now, it doesn’t matter what the United CEO does,” Chowdhury said. “Everyone thinks that he’s apologizing now because his company’s profits are going down.”

NOW WATCH: United Airlines CEO apologizes after initially calling the passenger ‘disruptive’ and ‘belligerent’

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