It doesn't matter what happened in David Dao's life – that can't justify what happened to him on United Airlines

Only after United Airlines' share price plummeted by almost $1bn overnight did CEO Oscar Munoz bother to stop victim-blaming. But whatever did or didn't happen in Dao's past, he didn't deserve to have his life ruined for not wanting to get off a plane

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The Independent Online

“Doctor dragged off United flight was felon who traded prescription drugs for secret gay sex with patient half his age and took them himself – and he needed anger management, was ‘not forthright’ and had control issues, psychiatrist found,” wrote the Daily Mail this week of Dr David Dao, in probably the longest headline ever written. "United passenger dragged off plane was convicted of trading drugs for sex," wrote the MetroDavid Dao, of course, is the 69-year-old passenger who was assaulted by a security official while being removed from an oversold flight this week in a brutal video which quickly went internationally viral.

Dao’s heavily bleeding face and his cries of terror caused widespread uproar and a Twitter-led boycott of United Airlines, especially after United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a non-apology which thanked his staff for “always going above and beyond” and for following “established protocols”. The only euphemistic mention of the violence was made when Munoz apologised for having to “re-accommodate a passenger”, something which brought to mind one of the bureaucratic workers in the dystopian film Brazil: “The population census has got him down as ‘dormanted’. The Central Collective Storehouse computer has got him down as ‘deleted’. Information Retrieval has got him down as ‘inoperative’. Security has got him down as ‘excised’. Administration has got him down as ‘completed’.” (He’s dead, accidentally killed because of an error in paperwork.)

United Airlines’ share price plummeted overnight, and once almost $1bn (£800m) was wiped off the company’s value, it must have become clear to Munoz that he’d have to knock his response up a few dials from “Orwellian” to “human” before further damage was done to the company. This morning, the “re-accommodation” of a passenger who he’d labelled “disruptive and belligerent” became the “truly horrific” treatment of a paying customer; the employees he thanked for “going above and beyond” were told to help “fix what’s broken so this never happens again”.

It’s sad to see how much tangible damage has to be done to a corporation before its CEO bothers to call a spade a spade – even when United’s reputation had been trashed across social media globally, taking up the number one spot on Chinese Twitter equivalent Weibo with 550 million views, it still took a financial hit to get Munoz talking again – but it’s sadder to see how some media dealt with the story.

Man brutally dragged off United Airlines flight: "I want to go home"

The Daily Mail was not alone in immediately dragging up details about Dao’s past. “Doctor dragged off flight was convicted of trading drugs for sex,” reported the New York Post. “United Airlines doctor’s dark past revealed: trafficked drugs for ‘sexual favours’ – court docs,” wrote Hollywood Life. “My desk is covered with court and legal docs re: troubled past of the doctor pulled off United,” tweeted Lisa Fletcher of ABC News. “David Dao, passenger removed from United flight, now in spotlight”, said USA Today.

Everyone knows that if your client is centre-stage during a particularly bad case of negative PR, the most tempting solution is to move the spotlight. But even public relations crisis teams now advise against giving in to temptation. The consensus has been for a while that the best solution is to own up, apologise, take responsibility and move on (preferably with a well-timed positive announcement a month or so later) rather than scapegoating one person, especially when that one person is a victim. United seems to have only just got that memo.

And what if some sections of the media appoint themselves your light technician and move the spotlight for you? Then it’s your responsibility to stand against the irrelevant information appearing across multiple publications. Questions have inevitably started to be asked: who dug up those details about David Dao’s apparent medical misdemeanour or the gay sex he supposedly had with a younger man, and why? 

There’s one thing any decent human being should be able to agree on: it doesn’t matter what David Dao did or didn’t do in his past, because none of it is relevant to whether or not he should have been left in hospital after boarding a flight home. Acting like his history might make it “less bad” to beat him up is a dangerous position to take with serious consequences. Where, indeed, is the dirt-digging being done on the United staff who handled everything so badly, the security team who caused Dao serious damage, or the CEO who acted so dismissively about the entire episode?

United Airlines CEO gives first interview since passenger was dragged off plane

There were so many alternatives available to United in this whole sorry scenario. They could have put their crew on a different flight with a different airline rather than asking their passengers to disembark. They could have offered better financial incentives or first class tickets to any destination to encourage volunteers to come forward. They could have, after Dao’s removal, immediately owned up to their error and made it clear that they didn’t condone violent behaviour toward their passengers. They could have quickly and unequivocally stated that the history of David Dao had no bearing on whether or not he was deserving of violent rebuke on one of their flights.

Instead, they opened themselves up to one of the worst PR disasters of 2017, and every publication which chose to victim-blame David Dao for getting his face smashed in should be ashamed. “Sam! Can’t you do anything about these terrorists?” says Ida Lowry in Brazil, to which Sam replies: “It’s my lunch hour. Besides, it’s not my department.” It feels like Oscar Munoz has been taking a very similar tack with the fallout of his airline’s latest scandal (hot on the heels of the one a fortnight ago where they denied boarding to two teenage girls for wearing leggings.) That’s great news for his competitors, who have been having a field day. But it’s not good news for anyone who believes that you don’t deserve your life ruined for questioning whether you should have to get off a plane.

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