Advertising Strategy

United Airlines and Public Relations: An Interview with Peter Shankman

peter shankmanIt hasn’t been the best few weeks for United Airlines.

While the story of the passenger torn from his seat and hurt in the process blew up, it was by far not the only problematic news story facing United Airlines. From a couple separated on their way to their wedding, to scorpions falling out of overhead luggage, and more, United Airlines has had a rather tough few weeks.

In moments like this, when it seems that there is no way of getting out from under bad publicity, we thought we turned to Peter Shankman, a public relations advisor and marketer with years in the business, to pick his brain about what United Airlines is going through, and what, as other companies look on wondering if that could be them someday, others may learn from their time in the spotlight.

1: Thanks for joining us, Peter! So, what are a few things that United did, whether right or wrong, during this week of public relations disasters?

Blaming the customer probably wasn’t the best idea. I know the goal was to support the employees, but it came out as anything but useful.  

2: What are two to three ways for companies to prep against this type of public relations perfect storm?

Work with your social and coms teams to have something to say, not just staying quiet, and CERTAINLY not boilerplate responses. Both of those hurt when the ___ hits the fan.

3: How can companies stay ahead of backlash in an honest, transparent way?

Own the mistake. Owning the mistake helps turn haters into lovers who will back you the next time you have a mistake. United didn’t do this. Now, or earlier, either. 

4: What are two to three things that companies can take away from this?

Be smarter. Everyone in the world is a news producer now, everyone can produce and share content. There were fifty million better ways to handle the situation before it occurred. None of them were done. 

5: How do companies going through this ever recover? Are there a few tips companies could use to climb back to good standing?

United won’t die. They’re a multi-billion dollar company, and have the largest route map in the world. People can’t just stop using them. I fly 250k miles a year on them, and have no choice – they’re the only airport close to my apartment with the flights to where I need to go. they’ll recover, and hopefully learn to do better in the future. 


An author, entrepreneur, speaker, and worldwide connector, Peter is globally recognized for radically new ways of thinking about marketing, customer service, advertising, PR, and social media. Peter is best known for founding Help A Reporter Out, (HARO) in 2008, which in under a year became the number one website for thousands of journalists on deadline to connect with experts and sources for their stories around the globe. In June of 2010, less than three years after Peter started HARO, it was acquired by Vocus, Inc. Peter is the founder of ShankMinds: Business Masterminds, a series of small business entrepreneurial-style masterminds in over 25 cities worldwide. Additionally, Peter is also the founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Inc., a boutique Social Media, Marketing and PR Strategy firm located in New York City, with clients worldwide.