Lanny Davis: United Airlines response a 'textbook case' of wrong reaction

Crisis mismanagement: United, Spicer, O'Reilly_00045701
Crisis mismanagement: United, Spicer, O'Reilly_00045701

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Crisis mismanagement: United, Spicer, O'Reilly 08:48

Story highlights

  • PR expert says United bungled apology for forcibly removing passenger
  • Says Sean Spicer broke "cardinal rule" of PR by comparing Syria's Assad to Hitler
  • Advises Bill O'Reilly to own up to mistakes and apologize

(CNN)What do United Airlines, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly have in common? They all bungled responses to public relations crises this week, says Lanny Davis, a lawyer and crisis management specialist.

Speaking with CNN's Michael Smerconish on Saturday, Davis said United Airlines' response to a viral video of a passenger being dragged off a flight was a "textbook case of how to do everything wrong."
Davis, whose past clients include Martha Stewart and the NFL's Washington Redskins, was particularly critical of United CEO Oscar Munoz. In his initial statement about the incident on Monday, Munoz only apologized for "having to re-accommodate ... customers." An email he later sent to United employees described the removed passenger as "disruptive and belligerent."
    Munoz's inadequate response sparked outcry on social media and caused share prices to plummet, costing the airline millions of dollars.
    Munoz's first mistake was that "he did not tell all the facts and did not tell the truth," Davis said, noting that United first blamed the problem on overbooking. It was later revealed that passengers were removed from the flight to make room for four United employees.
    "He didn't start with the facts. There was no overbooking problem. And what they did is replace people who were already paid in their seats with crew members and that wasn't their first factual explanation ... so they didn't tell the truth," he said.
    United's response should have been simple, conciliatory and honest, said Davis.
    "You say 'I'm sorry. We will fix the problem. And here are all the facts.' And they've done none of those," he told Smerconish.
    Davis also criticized Sean Spicer, saying the White House spokesman's comment on Tuesday comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler was unwise.
    Spicer broke a "cardinal rule of trying to compare something, anything, to Hitler," said Davis.
    Although Spicer apologized for the comment, Davis insisted that Spicer was still fundamentally ill-suited for the job.
    "Crisis management is about having credibility, likability," said Davis. "People give you some slack when you say 'I'm sorry,' not just because you say the words ... but there's a context. You believe the words."
    Because of what he called Spicer's history of being "disrespectful to reporters," Davis said that no matter how strongly worded an apology, the public would still ultimately struggle to "give him any slack."
    "He's in the wrong job and should go somewhere else," Davis concluded.
    Asked about O'Reilly, who has lost more than half of his advertisers due to allegations of sexual harassment, Davis said he had previously given the Fox News host advice.
    "I said to him: you can be angry and disregard what has happened or you can tell the audience 'I get that I did something wrong and I'm moving on and focusing on my family,'" Davis said.
    O'Reilly, who has yet to publicly address the multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him, announced this week that he would be taking an extended Easter vacation.
    Davis said O'Reilly's should break his silence and confront the controversy head-on.
    "Whatever happened, you have hurt people. You need to just simply address that you've hurt people. You don't want to hurt people. You're sorry for that. You want to move on. If he did that, rather than the angry Bill O'Reilly which we're seeing, he might have a chance to recover," he said.