How Sorry Apologies Doomed Pepsi and United Airlines

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By Alex Altman

More than a month later, the bruises still shine bright. No matter what they do, Pepsi and United Airlines can’t outrun the ignominy of their recent PR blunders. In an age where attention spans are as limited as airplane legroom, that’s really saying something.

At this point, pretty much every aspect of these mistakes has been unpacked. And what’s interesting is that while both situations transpired in completely different ways, they’re bound by common themes: including weak apologies that only made matters worse.

When you make a mistake, an immediate, thoughtful and thorough apology that conveys remorse and demonstrates an understanding of the public’s indignation can help defuse the situation. In their apologies, both Pepsi and United Airlines failed in this regard.

Here’s a closer look at the chronology and context behind each brand’s flawed apology.

Pepsi’s controversial ad went mainstream the morning of April 4 and was roundly excoriated on social media. In the afternoon, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

While Pepsi deserves credit for instantly pulling the ad, this apology didn’t pacify activists who felt their cause was being appropriated, and even mocked. Additionally, singling out Jenner, a willing participant, made it seem like the brand cared more about protecting its relationship with the starlet than apologizing to those it had offended.

United Airlines:
At 7:30 p.m. on April 9, video surfaced of Dr. David Dao being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight. Fifteen hours (and millions of views) later, CEO Oscar Munoz finally issued a statement:

“…I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

Not only was Dao omitted from the apology, he was vilified. This intensified public outrage, which was already at a boil. But instead of backing down, Munoz doubled down. Exactly 24 hours after the incident, he sent a letter to employees in which he blamed Dao for being “disruptive and belligerent.”

On May 11, Munoz awoke to news that United Airlines stock had fallen by 2 percent. This prompted him to issue yet another apology that was more thorough, but still lacking in empathy. At this point, it didn’t matter anyway. The damage was done.

United Airlines had avoided another PR hit until May 11, when a female passenger accused the airline of making her “pee in a cup” during a flight. United Airlines hasn’t seemed to learn its lesson about customer service. We’ll see if it’s learned anything about damage control.

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