Lessons from United Airlines: 6 Steps For When Your PR Fails

Leadership Lessons from United Airlines


The minute the video starts, it’s obvious it will be explosive. And it sure has been. It has now been viewed millions of times around the world: A man is forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight.

Most of us are offended that the man was treated like this, bloodied as he was hauled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle. Most of us have also had our share of experiences with airlines, and this hits a nerve, like a final straw breaking the collective back of the paying passengers. We’ve been hit with baggage fees. We’ve been told, “No, you can’t have the whole can of soda.” Blankets disappeared ages ago. We’re scanned, wanded, searched, and pushed along through a system full of weary travelers with suspicious glances. Our flights are canceled or delayed for hours—always, it seems, the minute we arrive at the gate, harried and exhausted from running, of course.

Watching this man pulled off so brutally, we ask, “Why was he pulled off the flight?” The answer doesn’t make us feel any better: so that United Airlines could use the seat for a flight attendant.

A customer, obeying all rules, who the airline boarded moments before, who was sitting in the seat he paid for, was chosen at random for removal.

He didn’t want to get off the plane, and so the scene escalated.

Defenders of the airline will point out that this is not only legal, but then they point to his behavior during and after the incident. They will also point out that it was security, and not airline personnel, who removed him.

My law degree is decades old, and I’ve been an inactive member for too many years to weigh in on the legal issue here except to say that it’s far from clear.


Make the Right Choices

What’s clear to me is this:

United apparently chose policy over principle, chose employees over customers, chose to save a few dollars only to lose millions.


“When in doubt, choose principle over policy.” -Skip Prichard


Worse yet is when you remember United’s motto: Fly the friendly skies. Maybe the friendliness only starts when you’re airborne?

Many PR disasters seem to worsen just when you think the lowest point is reached.

And that’s what happened when the CEO stepped in with his comments. He sent a memo blaming the passenger and defending employees, saying that they were following existing procedures. He called the passenger disruptive and belligerent.

Did he apologize? He “apologized for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Re-accommodate? The man was bloody and seemed to be unconscious!

Only after outrage about his comments exploded online did he change to become “outraged” himself about the incident. His tone has now changed to apologetic. Yesterday he softened them further and even said it was a failure of policy and training. At least the tone is improving.

The minute I saw this video, I said the obvious: This is going to be a PR disaster for United. They better have a full crisis team working on it. When I saw the CEO’s comments, I said to a group that this would now make PR history. It has found a place in marketing classes where these types of mistakes are prominently featured. It may well be mentioned along with other great PR blunders like BP’s spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.


“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 10 minutes to ruin it.” -Warren Buffet


What can we learn from this entire mess?



Lessons from United

I’m reminded to always look on the positive side of things. That sentiment was shared by Andy Imbimbo, who posted this:

So many people are posting about this guy being dragged off a plane. I can’t remember the last time everyone has been so…….United!


“So many people are posting…I can’t remember the last time everyone’s been so..United!” -@AndyCoolBeans


That’s a great point. We are mostly united against this behavior. In a politically divided nation, it has shifted the conversation from politics.

Meanwhile, the public relations problem for United reminds me of how each of us can handle our screw-ups, mistakes, and errors in judgment. I’ve made my fair share, too, though thankfully not at all like this one.

Here are a few leadership lessons from United’s….well, to be kind, should I say “lapse in judgment”? 



If you can avoid a problem, that’s always the first step. It wasn’t necessary. The employees could have driven the few hours to reach their destination and prioritized the customers. United could have offered a higher amount of money until they had enough volunteers. Why allow all of the passengers to board and take their seats if you didn’t have enough seats for them? There are a number of ways this could have been avoided.


“Never respond analytically to a problem growing emotionally.” -Skip Prichard



Here’s my rule: Never respond analytically to a problem growing emotionally. Pointing to policies and legalese will satisfy only a small percentage of the public. Most people want you to connect emotionally and sincerely first. No excuses. The language initially used made it worse. “We apologize that we had to re-accommodate some passengers” was such an emotional miss that it fueled the fire of an already outraged public. Always great to think of Molly Ivins. She once said, “The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.”


“The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.” -Molly Ivins



Apologies are not as easy as they may seem at first. I learned this especially from the research of Jennifer Thomas and the book she co-wrote with Gary Chapman. There is a specific language of apology. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to improve their communication, but PR departments should take note.


“Genuine apology opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.” -Jennifer Thomas




Why Pixar, Netflix, and Others Succeed Where Most Fail

Build an Extreme Team



It seems easy enough. Hire talented people who are motivated to achieve something and together the team is formed.

What could go wrong?

Most of us who have been in leadership positions realize that building a team is far more difficult than hiring talented individuals.

It’s a process. From understanding individual styles to improving communication, it’s a constant effort.

That’s why nearly every leader I know is constantly working on the team.

One of the experts I follow is Robert Bruce Shaw. He’s a management consultant focused on leadership effectiveness. He has a doctorate in organizational behavior from Yale University and has written numerous books and articles.

He’s also an expert on teams and has a new book out: Extreme Teams: Why Pixar, Airbnb, and Other Cutting-Edge Companies Succeed Where Most Fail. After I read his new book, I asked him to share some of his research with us on teams.


“Extreme teams realize that tension and conflict are essential to achieving their goals.” -Robert Bruce Shaw


Elements of a Highly Successful Team

What are some of the elements of a highly successful team?

I assess a team’s success on two dimensions.  First, does the team deliver the results expected of it by its customers and stakeholders (in most cases, more senior levels of management within a company).  Does it deliver results in a manner that builds its capabilities in order to deliver results as well into the future?  Second, does the team build positive relationships among its members as well as with other groups?  This is required to sustain the trust needed for a team to work in a productive manner over time.  These are the two team imperatives:  deliver results and build relationships.


What’s an extreme team?

Teams that continually push for better results and relationships are what I call extreme teams.  Most teams work in a manner that emphasizes either results or relationships – and fail to develop each as an important outcome.  In addition, some teams settle for easy compromises in each area in striving to avoid the risk and conflict that can come when pushing hard in either area.  For example, a team that pushes hard on results can strain relationships.  Or, a team that values only relationships can erode its ability to deliver results.  Extreme Teams push results and relationships to the edge of being dysfunctional – and then effectively manage the challenge of doing so.


“Results + Relationships = Team Success.” -Robert Bruce Shaw


Foster An Extreme Team Culture

How do leaders help foster a culture where extreme teams thrive?

My book examines five practices of cutting-edge firms that support extreme teams.  These firms are unique in how they operate but do share some common practices.  I will mention three of these success practices:

1) They have a purpose that results in highly engaged team members.  This purpose involves the work itself but also includes having a positive impact on society.  Pixar, for example, attracts people who are passionate about making animated films that emotionally touch people.  Patagonia attracts people who love the outdoors and want to do everything they can to protect the environment.

2) They select and promote people who embody their core values.  Cultural fit becomes more important than an impressive resume.  Alibaba looks for people who fit its highly entrepreneurial culture.  The firm’s founder, Jack Ma, describes this as finding the right people not the best people.

3) They create a “hard/soft” culture that works against complacency.  In extreme teams, people realize that they need to be uncomfortable at times if they are to produce the best results.  This need is balanced against the need for people to feel they are part of community that supports them and their success.  Each firm I profile in the book does this to a different degree and with different practices.  Each, however, is more transparent and direct than conventional teams.


“Cutting edge firms have a critical mass of obsessive people and teams.” -Robert Bruce Shaw


Deciding what not to do is an important challenge. What do the best teams do to focus?

The Future of Happiness: How to Be Happy in the Digital Age

How to Be Happy in the Digital Age


We live in the digital age.

Some bemoan the constant interruptions and endless internet surfing. Others celebrate the new-found freedom and capabilities.

How has the digital age impacted our happiness?

Amy Blankson is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between positive psychology and technology. She is the only person to be named a Point of Light by two presidents (President George Bush Sr. and President Bill Clinton) for creating a movement to activate positive culture change.  A sought-after speaker and consultant, Amy has now worked with organizations like Google, NASA, the US Army, and the Xprize Foundation to help foster a sense of well-being in the Digital Era.

Her new book, The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-Being in the digital Era, is a blend of research, case studies, and practical tips to improve your happiness, productivity and health in the midst of the onslaught of apps, devices, and constant connection.

I recently spoke to her about staying positive in the midst of it all.


Research: Positivity equals 3x more creativity and 31% higher productivity.


Happiness in the Digital Age

I want to start with the question that an entrepreneur asked you at one of your presentations: “Social media and technology are destroying our happiness, right?”

In recent months, I have seen a growing number of posts about how bad technology is for us. Technology is blamed for social isolation, disconnection, and corruption.  But I’ve also heard and seen how technology can be used for good — a means to connect, to share knowledge, to empower, even to save lives.  So, which is it: Is technology good for us or bad for us?  Does technology make us less happy or more happy?  As Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Technology is a tool, a means to an end–and WE get to decide how that story ends.


Fact: 95% of Americans spend 2 or more hours a day using a digital device.


Since technology can both bring joy and destroy it, tell us a few ways you’ve used it to your advantage. And tell us about what apps you’re using for happiness, productivity, and to “tune in, not zone out.”

One of my favorite examples of “happytech” is the Spire stone.  The Spire stone is a small wearable that clips onto your bra strap or waistband to monitor your respiration and, in turn, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and increase the flow of endorphins in your blood stream. The Spire uses your breathing patterns to figure out when you are tense, calm, or focused, and provides gentle notifications to guide you when you need it most.

When I first started testing out the Spire stone, I had a particularly poignant experience.  Last spring, my family jumped into our backyard pool to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. In an unfortunate turn of circumstances, my younger daughter jumped into the pool a bit too close to her older sister, landing on her neck and breaking her neck.  I happened to be out of town when this happened, so I didn’t know how bad the situation was until I returned home and took my older daughter to the doctor.  I was wearing my Spire stone the whole time and had managed to stay fairly calm through the doctor visit; however, as I was walking out of the hospital with my daughter in a giant neck brace, my Spire stone began to vibrate to let me know I was feeling tense.  Pausing to think about what was going on, I realized that I was actually anxious about how other people would perceive me as the mother of a child with a broken neck. The nudge was just enough to help me reframe my thoughts to be more present for my daughter rather than worried about myself, and I was able to short-circuit an emotional response that might have taken me a week or more to realize before I had the Spire stone.


“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” –Robert Solow


Tell us about the Happiness Cliff.

Sometimes tech is fun just for the sake of the endorphin rush and the dopamine boost. But at what point do those focus-altering diversions cause us to lose sight over what we really care about? At what point do diversions turn into fixations that are distracting?

Sometimes we become so engrossed in our diversions that we don’t notice that they are no longer making us happy anymore. Like Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes, we get our legs going so fast that it actually takes us a moment to realize that we have run right off the Happiness Cliff. Let me assure you that this never turns out well for poor Wile E.

According to the Law of Diminishing Returns, many diversions can actually be beneficial for our productivity and happiness—up to a point. Beyond that point, the diversion simply becomes a waste of time and eventually a time suck that becomes harmful to our productivity. To avoid falling off the happiness cliff, start your day by setting your intention for how you want to use your time.   When you start to find yourself engrossed in a task, pause to ask if your technology use is helping you tune in (helping you to achieve your intention) or causing you to zone out.  If your answer is the latter, then try to set a time limit for yourself to engage in that activity so that you don’t get sucked in and lose focus.


Happiness Tip: pause to see if you are tuning in or zoning out.


Train Your Brain to Be Positive

What does the latest research tell us about our ability to train our brains to be more positive?

The latest research from the field of positive psychology reveals that training our brains to be more positive is not only possible, it’s actually essential to striving after your full potential. Why? Because when your brain is positive, it receives a boost of dopamine, which turns on the learning centers in the brain and makes you able to see more possibilities in your environment.  In fact, a positive brain has been linked to: 37% higher sales, 3x more creativity, 31% higher productivity, 40% increase in likelihood of receiving a promotion, 23% decrease in symptoms of fatigue, 10x increase in the level of engagement at work, a 39% increase in the likelihood of living to age 94, and a 50% decrease in the risk of heart disease.


Research: Positive people have a 40% increase in likelihood of a job promotion.


Create a Habitat for Happiness

How the Secret To Success Lies in Just ONE WORD

The One Word Secret

My friend Evan Carmichael is passionate about helping you reach your full potential. His YouTube channel has millions and millions of views.

You never know where he’ll turn up around the globe as he speaks about empowering entrepreneurs. I interviewed him in Madrid, Spain where he shared with me 6 Entrepreneurial Lessons that all of us can use.

His first book is out: Your One Word: The Powerful Secret to Creating A Business and Life that Matter . The book is designed to help you find your personal motto and to narrow it down to a single word that represents your unique purpose.

I asked Evan about his new book and how One Word is transforming people’s lives and focus.


“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word.” –Winston Churchill


Find Your Word

How do you find your One Word? What if you think of a few? How do you narrow it down?

That’s a loaded first question J The process starts by understanding that you—and everyone else—has a deep, core value that represents who you are, and the more you live your life in alignment with it, the more happiness, success, and impact you’ll have. Understand that Your One Word has always been a part of you and always will. It’s not a New Year’s resolution. It’s a lifelong resolution. People can often be prisoners of their current situation, which prevents real self-analysis. When thinking of your One Word, put it in the perspective of, “This is a forever commitment and who you always have been – knowingly or unknowingly.” To continue the process of finding your One Word, think about all the things, people, habits, and activities that have made you come alive in the past. Who was your favorite teacher? What is your favorite song? What did you love about your parents? Fill a page with happiness. Then next to each item, write down what specifically you loved about it. Mrs. Jenkins, your 9th grade science teacher, is your favorite teacher of all time for a reason. And it wasn’t just because of the material she taught in class. When you make the list of all the things that have made you happy and the reasons why, you’ll start to find a consistent theme among them. That consistent theme is your One Word. And once you find it, I’d challenge you to start designing your life around it so you can, with purpose, bring more of those happy moments in as opposed to randomly waiting for them to happen.


“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.” -Anita Roddick


Your Personality Changes, Your One Word Doesn’t

Recent studies show that personality changes dramatically from when we are young to when we are old. Does your One Word change over the course of your lifetime?

Your personality can change with time. You might get more conscientious as you get older or more agreeable once you’re raising a family. Some of what you value might also change. Early in life, you might be more concerned with promotions and career advancement. Later on, it could shift to health and relationships. But your core value, your One Word, doesn’t change. Your One Word is the lens through which you see the world. The way you approach and execute may change over time, but the foundation remains the same. For instance, one of the examples in my book is Mark Drager, a 30-something-year-old father, husband, and entrepreneur. His One Word is #Extraordinary. He’s currently focused on being an #Extraordinary father, husband, and entrepreneur. What he values most is being #Extraordinary. He doesn’t want to be ordinary. He wants to be more than that, in whatever he does. If he grows tired of business and puts a higher priority on travel or restoring old cars, or any number of things, his core value of #Extraordinary comes with him. It’s forever. It’s who he is at the deepest level. That’s why it’s so important to figure out and potentially the most important exercise you can do in your life. If you’re going through the process of finding your One Word and you fast forward your life to age 90 and you see yourself not believing in the same thing anymore, then you haven’t found your One Word.


“Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.” -Tony Robbins