skip to Main Content
Celebrating 23 years in business in 2020.
Crisis PR Rave & Rant: United Vs. Starbucks PR Crises

Crisis PR Rave & Rant: United Vs. Starbucks PR Crises

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This crisis PR case study could well be named “A Tale of Two Companies,” and this month’s focus on crisis PR includes both a “Rave” and a “Rant” by covering two big companies that faced a PR crisis in recent months, with vastly opposing strategies & results.

Starbucks Vs. United: Thumbs UP for Starbucks & Thumbs DOWN for United Airlines

When two big companies face huge crisis PR scenarios within weeks of each other, it provides a great opportunity to compare and review their strategies for dealing with a crisis – and assess what worked and what didn’t. For starters, let’s look at the crisis PR situation that unfolded, and I’ll cover what they did right, and what they did wrong.

Marketing RAVE:
Starbucks – Crisis PR In Philadelphia

Starbucks kicked into crisis PR mode after a white manager called the police on 2 black guests at the Starbucks store in Philadelphia. The two men came in and asked to use the restroom. An employee refused to let them use the restroom because they had not yet ordered a drink or snack. (Meanwhile, there were other white people in the store who were hanging out and had not ordered anything.) The store manager called the police and the two black men were dragged out of the store in handcuffs.

Reaction on social media was swift & brutal. Local community groups picketed & threatened local & national boycotts of Starbucks for racism. There was criticism for the double standard from the Starbucks store manager, and for Starbucks as a whole.

However, the response from Starbucks was swift & effective. Here’s what Starbucks did to handle the crisis PR situation:

  • CEO Flies to Philly: Starbucks CEO Kevin Johns flew to Philadelphia with the Starbucks leadership team to talk with community leaders. He also met personally with the two men thrown out of the Philadelphia store.
  • Racist manager fired: The manager who created the PR crisis was let go.
  • Racial Bias Training Announced: Within one week of this incident, Starbucks announced it would close more than 8,000 Starbucks stores in the US for company-wide racial bias training on May 29, 2018.
  • Media campaign: Spokespeople for Starbucks also did a round of media interviews stating their commitment to treating everyone equally, and backing it up with the closing of 8,000 stores on May 29th for the racial bias training.
  • Very positive settlement reached: The two men thrown out of Starbucks & arrested each got $1. In addition, Starbucks & the City of Philadelphia will donate $200,000 to help young entrepreneurs of color get their new businesses off the ground.

What Starbucks Did Right: Everything. This was a textbook case of how to properly handle a PR crisis.

Marketing RANT:
United Airlines – Crisis PR That Fell Flat

Crisis PR Case Study | DeWinter Marketing & PR DenverOn March 13, 2018, a family with a small dog in a traveling case boarded a United flight. Witnesses started posting on social media that a female flight attendant ordered the family to put the dog in an overhead bin. There were multiple witnesses who said the dog owner questioned the flight attendant and wanted to put the small dog in the case under the seat. But the flight attendant ordered the woman to put the dog in the overhead bin so she complied with the order. (Let’s remember that United is known for using private security officers to forcibly remove people from planes when they refuse to follow the orders of the flight attendants, like the Asian man who was beaten senseless and dragged of a plane unconscious.)

During the flight, the dog was barking and crying, which could be heard throughout the plane. There was NO doubt there was a dog in the overhead compartment. After 2 hours, it got eerily quiet. When the flight landed, the dog owner went to retrieve her dog, and found it dead from suffocation in the overhead bin. A woman sitting next to her held the woman’s child while she was sobbing because her dog was dead.

Public reaction also was swift & brutal. Comments like: “What flight attendant would force a passenger to put a dog in an overhead bin (where there’s no air)?” were posted on social media. United Airlines’ Facebook page exploded with angry people saying “I’ll never fly your airline again.”

And this is where United Airlines’ crisis PR team started out right and then went terribly wrong in their handling of the situation. Here’s what United Airlines did during this PR crisis:

  • “This should never have happened.” First, they publicly announced that the dog should never have been put in the overhead bin, and the company accepted responsibility for the death of the family’s dog. (Good.)
  • Then, everything went downhill.
  • “It’s the dog owner’s fault.” United’s PR team began claiming that there was a language barrier & that the dog’s owner misunderstood the instructions from the flight attendant. Witnesses on the flight immediately came forward and confirmed that the flight attendant ordered the woman to put the dog in the overhead bin.
  • “We didn’t know a dog was in the case.” The next storyline that surfaced was “The flight attendant didn’t know there was a dog in the little case.” Again, witnesses came forward and said the flight attendant knew there was a dog in the case, and that everyone heard it barking in the overhead bin until it died during the flight.
  • “It’s the dog owner’s fault.” Mysterious posts questioning the intelligence of the dog owner and blaming the dog owner started appearing on social media.
  • “Oops, we shipped your dog to Japan by mistake.” Shortly after the dog died in the overhead bin, United had another big gaffe, and flew an American dog to Japan by mistake.
  • “New Rule: No unattended dogs get to fly.” United Airlines ultimately changed its policy about flying dogs in a totally worthless way: They announced they would no longer fly dogs without a human in attendance. (This new rule has no substance and would not have prevented the dog in the overhead bin from dying, nor would it have prevented the American dog being accidentally shipped to Japan.)

What DIDN’T Happen:

  • “We’re not responsible.” After their initial response, United did not take responsibility.
  • United social media goes dark. United’s social media presence went “dark” and refused to acknowledge all the angry posts on their Facebook page. Instead, United’s automated social media technology either ignored the crisis, or popped up cheery messages that were clearly not relevant to the angry posts.
  • Flight attendant not fired. The flight attendant was not fired, nor was it ever announced that she was provided with remedial training or a reprimand.
  • ZERO company-wide training. There was no mention of company-wide training of flight protocols for flying pets.

What United Did Wrong: Everything.

3 Crisis PR Learning Points

Advance Planning for Crisis PR: The number 1 best practice is to do some crisis PR planning & develop a crisis PR plan in advance of crises.

Acknowledge: After fast-track strategic planning, the company should acknowledge what’s wrong.

Implement Positive Change: One of the best ways to de-fuse a PR crisis is to immediately implement meaningful changes designed to prevent the crisis from happening again.

The bottom line is that Starbucks handled their crisis PR with textbook precision and best practices. United did everything wrong. Need help developing a crisis PR plan? Get in touch with Denver-based DeWinter Marketing & PR to get your crisis PR program on track.



Courtney DeWinter

Courtney DeWinter is the president & founder of Denver-based DeWinter Marketing & PR in Denver, Colorado. She is a marketing & PR consultant with 25+ years of experience in branding, marketing, public relations, websites & journalism.

Back To Top