It has been more than four decades since Elton John declared sorry to be the hardest word - and if the behaviour of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is anything to go by, many are still struggling with the term in 2017.

The businessman was forced to apologise this week after footage of a United passenger being forcibly removed by authorities on an overbooked flight to Kentucky went from social media to news outlets around the globe, showing the man, who refused to give up his seat, being dragged, bloodied and screaming, from the plane.

In his letter, Munoz wrote: "Like you, I was upset to hear about what happened last night. The facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did..."

That was the first indication that he would attempt to deny wrongdoing entirely, confirmed by the lines that followed: "Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you."

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Earlier in the day, Munoz's official statement had taken a different tone, apologising "for having to re-accommodate these customers," and promising his team would be "reaching out" to the man involved. This unconvincing HR-speak was then compounded by the masochistic individuals behind United's Twitter account, who had already taken a martial stance against the outraged and defended their staff. Things weren't looking good.

In failing to properly apologise, Munoz - who last month received a 'communicator of the year' award from industry publication PRWeek - had managed to turn a colossal mistake into an fully-fledged crisis, and in the process steal the title of 'most despised corporation in America' from his previous employer and last week's public antagonists-in-chief, PepsiCo, who pulled an advert featuring Kendall Jenner after criticisms that it was 'racially insensitive'.

"It's a real screw-up," confirms Alan Stevens, a reputation specialist. "There are four fairly immovable rules around making public apologies as a business leader, and they failed on all counts."

According to Stevens, the first golden rule of corporate apologising is speed: get your say in first to limit the damage and give the impression of owning up to it. Munoz's letter came nearly 24 hours after the debacle. Then you need to empathise with the people affected - in this case not only the passenger in question, but those around him.

"He hasn't considered the distress caused to his other passengers here. The problem is bigger than defending the actions of his staff, he needs to apologise to those clearly upset by having to witness the event and feel uncomfortable on his service," Stevens says.

After that, making a show of having fixed the issue in future is key, before adding a final layer of generosity, such as free flights, after the case is closed.

"You need to stick to that blueprint, no matter how sure you are that your company hasn't done anything wrong. With a smartphone, everyone is a reporter, so there's no use trying to explain yourself. Your whole sympathy should be with the customers, otherwise they'll vote with their feet.

Man filmed bleeding after being attacked by cops on a United Airlines flight at O'Hare airport in Chicago.
Man filmed bleeding after being attacked by cops on a United Airlines flight at O'Hare airport in Chicago.

In contrast with Munoz's masterclass in how not to say sorry, Stevens points to the crisis management skills of Sir Richard Branson, who won praise for his speedy and honest apologies after the Grayrigg Virgin Trains derailment in 2007 and the 2014 Virgin Galactic crash in the Mojave Desert, both of which saw employees lose their lives.

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"He's an example of a CEO who understands that you need to be upfront and personal in this sort of thing, expressing immediate sympathy and giving people all the information they'll want. Within hours, people were thinking about those things differently because of Branson's great work. Importantly, too, he was there at the sites. Image is everything, you cannot be seen elsewhere, like Philip Green on his yacht during the BHS case last year."

This was United's second recent failed attempt at clearing up a major PR failure; last month, the airline caused another Twitter tempest when two teenage girls were told they couldn't board a flight wearing leggings. Munoz didn't comment personally but like this week, United lashed out at complainants, brandishing their long-established protocols against such attire for flyers travelling on 'buddy passes' for friends and family of employees, rather than merely apologising for causing upset and confusion.

Experts say it isn't impossible to maintain dignity in the face of a mistake. PepsiCo, for all the ire they drew after last week's controversial Kendall Jenner advert, were praised for the tone of their statement - even if it did take time. "Clearly," they said, "we missed the mark and apologise. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout."

The language used is vital. Munoz did not mention the words 'sorry' or 'apology' in his internal memo, merely expressing his "regrets" that the situation arose.

"You need to think about the ramifications of getting that apology wrong, because often it's much, much worse if you don't get the follow-up right. Mistakes happen, but the nature of the company's response says a lot about their ethics in general," says Rasheed Ogunlaru, a life coach.

"All people want to hear is an authentic message and some action that ensures it won't happen again. Reputations take years to build and seconds to lose. It's not worth risking anything."