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CEO Oscar Munoz referred to the incident as a “truly horrific event.” Video provided by Newsy
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United must make amends for its gaffe on a plane and immediately start the process of rebuilding trust among fliers and the general public, media specialists said Wednesday.

Where did it all go wrong for CEO Oscar Munoz, who last month was named PRWeek‘s Communicator of the Year Award? Chris Ann Goddard, president of CGPR public relations, says some of the airline’s efforts at quelling the uproar since video of a passenger being dragged screaming from a flight went viral have done more harm than good.

Goddard says United needed to immediately shift into crisis mode. A crisis plan, she said, should include a heartfelt apology, release of a specific plan for addressing the mistakes, clear communication with front-line employees and a statement sent to frequent fliers and loyal customers.

“Three apologies in two days? Really?” Goddard says. “Put the heartfelt apology out there, issue a thoughtful statement, admit a company’s wrongdoing, be consistent on social media. … And, oh by the way, don’t blame anyone else, especially the victim.”

Eric Schiffer, CEO of Reputation Management Consultants, said United will be hurt in the short term. But the situation still can be managed, he said.

“They have the money to do the ads, and they can get by through just the power of the scale they have,” Schiffer says. “But they are definitely going to lose customers and they should.”

More on United:

United’s brand crisis began Sunday in Chicago. Passengers had already boarded United Express Flight 3411, bound for Louisville, when the airline attempted to make room for a crew needed to fly out of Louisville the next day. When offers of almost $1,000 failed to clear the necessary four seats, passengers were selected at random and told they had to exit the aircraft.

Boom. First mistake, says Paul English, travel industry veteran and Kayak.com co-founder says.

“Never force a customer to change behavior, always offer incentives,” English says. “United Airlines could, and should, have offered bounties for volunteers and kept increasing the bounty. There was no reason they could not have pursued a more consumer-friendly approach.”

Three of the randomly selected passengers yielded; a fourth refused. Chicago aviation authorities were called, and video of the ensuing imbroglio caught social media lightning. Hundreds of millions of viewers around the world witnessed the bloody, violent confrontation.

That led to a somewhat awkward statement from Munoz. The first, brief United statement noted that “one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.” Munoz then issued a statement that drew ridicule after he apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers.”

In a follow-letter to employees, Munoz said he “emphatically” stood behind all employees, adding “I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

Kind to stand with your workers in a time of crisis, but still a little tone deaf to the general public, the experts say.

The action that United took on the plane, in concert with law enforcement, was bad enough, Goddard says. She said the “epic fail” of the PR team added to the woes facing United and Munoz.

On Tuesday, Munoz seemed to find his public relations legs. “I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight, and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” Munoz said in a statement. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

Munoz followed that up with an appearance Wednesday on Good Morning America during which he said he felt “shame” when watching videos of the confrontation. He said “common sense” should have overruled proper procedures, and that it was his job to ensure common sense is king in the future.

United needs to act quickly and gain momentum in its efforts to restore trust, says Bernd Schmitt, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School who has conducted research on consumer behavior.

“United needs to revive the damaged brand with a credible customer-focused campaign,” he said. “And they must act fast to rebuild their image which has been tarnished by a slow, inappropriate and purely company-focused PR reaction.”

Goddard says a thoughtful communications plan will be United’s best strategy.

“This is going to be a long journey back for United to restore customer confidence,” she said. “But it will be a long time before the consensus for United will be ‘wheels up’ —more likely it will be “buckle up.”