The situation, as many have noted, has become a ‘PR disaster’ for United and demonstrates, no matter what industry you are in, it is the mishandling of an event that can often have far more serious ramifications than the event itself.

There has already been criticism from world leaders, celebrities, corporations and the PR industry, for United CEO Oscar Munoz’s handling of the situation. An internal communication sent to staff was condemned as being defensive in tone and described the passenger concerned as “disruptive and belligerent.” It is unsurprising that an internal note to staff on a situation as delicate as this – and with such inflammatory language – was leaked.

PR is sometimes misconstrued as being pure media relations but in reality it is about shaping the public perception of a brand and ensuring that all communication – whether to staff, clients, key stakeholders, or in fact the media – is consistent and projects the principles and ethos of the company.

One of the first lessons a PR consultant will tell you is that if you don’t want to see something in print don’t say it to a journalist. Likewise, once you have sent out any form of communication you may as well consider it in the public domain. It only takes one disgruntled employee or client for it to get into the ‘wrong hands’.

Given JPES Partners’ specialism within the investment industry, why are we commenting on this situation? Because the basic principles of reputation management do not differ from one industry to another. For asset management firms in particular we have previously outlined the basic tenets of reputation management and crisis communications (read our Coping with a Reputational Crisis).

The ‘United overbooking debacle’ will no doubt become infamous, just as the poorly handled oil spill by BP did in 2010. For BP, its share price has never recovered to those pre-crisis levels even with speculation this year of a takeover by ExxonMobil.

There are lessons that every PR consultant, every Client Relations Director, every CEO, can learn from this situation. Handling it from the outset with sensitivity and an awareness of the impact on the brand – not just a legal and compliance lens – can at least contain, if not entirely mitigate, a crisis.