Mayday: How United Airlines crashed its reputation
In a series of missteps doomed to be used in PR lectures as a cautionary tale for ever more, United Airlines made an almighty hash of a bad situation. Ruth Callaghan explains what went wrong.
What’s worse than upsetting a plane load of customers? Upsetting 200 million potential customers in one go.
That’s the situation United Airlines finds itself in right now, after a video went viral of a 69-year-old doctor, forcibly ripped from his seat by black-clad security and dragged with a bloodied lip down the aisle of the plane.
A call for four volunteers to leave the overbooked flight had failed and the airline needed four people to hop off so four staff could hop on. The doctor — singled out at random according to the airline — was chosen but repeatedly said he couldn’t miss the flight as he had patients who needed him. That message went unheeded.
Within hours of the video being captured, #United was the leading hashtag worldwide on Twitter, as footage of the incident went instantly viral.
— Julia Macfarlane (@juliamacfarlane) April 10, 2017
A blundering attempt at explaining the situation by the CEO didn’t help.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United Airlines (@united) April 10, 2017
On the use of language. pic.twitter.com/8EfqKXR1jJ
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) April 10, 2017
As time ticked by, and the company floundered in its crisis response, the trending hashtag switched to the sardonic #UnitedAirlinesNewMotto — not much fun for an airline that once called itself “the friendly way to fly”.
And in a sideswipe at the other corporate PR disaster of the week (Pepsi’s terrible Kendall Jenner ad that had to be pulled within a day of release) …
PEPSI: We made the biggest PR blunder of any major company this year.
UNITED: Hold my beer.
— Mikel Jollett (@Mikel_Jollett) April 10, 2017
By evening Perth time, the new hashtag to watch was #BoycottUnited.
There were predictions a billion dollars could be wiped off the airline’s stock price (despite a small rise on Tuesday linked to falling oil prices even as the news was breaking.)
That would be a familiar outcome for United which reportedly lost 10 per cent of its share price during a previous outing in the court of public opinion: the infamous case of a singer who wrote the viral song #UnitedBreaksGuitars after his run-in with the unfriendly carrier.
United also managed to career into a PR disaster only a month ago, banning two 10-year-old girls (really) for wearing leggings on a plane. It seemed hard at the time to imagine a more stupid fight to pick in public, but beating a paid passenger bloody because they won’t get off a crucial flight seems to do it.
But the real damage of this reputation self-immolation is probably yet to become clear.
If United’s public response was woeful, its private email to employees (which immediately leaked) was worse, blaming the customer for not ‘volunteering’ to leave. And even that was topped by the company’s apparent silence towards one of its biggest customer demographics.
Twitter and Facebook may be banned in China but on the hugely popular Chinese social network Weibo, there was a massive response:
— Te-Ping Chen (@tepingchen) April 11, 2017
And then from the NPR Shanghai correspondent:
3 hours later, number has nearly doubled: 120 million views just for that specific hashtag on Weibo. United’s in big trouble here in China. https://t.co/pXwET1eWUy
— Rob Schmitz (@rob_schmitz) April 11, 2017
More than 97,000 comments had been recorded on one Weibo post by the end of the day and a #ChineseLivesMatter petition demanding the Whitehouse investigate whether the passenger had been singled out because he was Asian had gained nearly 30,000 signatures.
All this and still no adequate apology from the company over what had taken place.
Chances are, your business is not in the habit of dragging doctors out of plane seats while caught on phone video, but there are lessons in United’s ham-fisted response for everyone.
Firstly, if you do something wrong admit, apologise, and accept responsibility. The sooner you do, the less likely that your original stuff up will spiral out of control.
Secondly, even if you do believe your actions are justified, pause to think about how they are perceived.
For United’s communications team that sense check should have sounded like this: Did this man really look like he was volunteering to leave the plane? Did his repeated statement that he had patients to see really not sound important? Did this bespectacled man in his 60s really need three burly men to evict him with violence? Of course not.
If an ordinary person believes your actions are unfair, then people will perceive you are at fault regardless of your reasoning. Again, apologise. Sort out the detail later once the kerfuffle has died down.
And finally, if an enormous section of your customer base is showing that your actions undermine their faith in you — get in front of the story. Speak directly to all your stakeholders, wherever they may be, and get that apology out in any language that requires.
Or else you might find that death by hashtag really is possible after all.