United Airlines has certainly seen better months than this past one. On April 10, a man on board United Flight 3411 was filmed being forcibly dragged off a plane by United personnel, and the video spread like wildfire across social media.
Of course, the situation was considerably more complex than just United officers abusing a helpless passenger for no reason. Like most airlines, United has an explicit policy that passengers may be involuntarily de-boarded from a plane in rare but necessary circumstances.
In this case, four crew members of the carrier needed to board the plane and get to their next assignment, or that flight would be canceled. United requested volunteers to forfeit their seats in exchange for compensation, but none came forward.
At that point, they randomly selected a passenger to be “involuntarily deboarded.” The passenger resisted verbal attempts to get him to forfeit his seat, so airport officers became aggressive and began to drag him physically from the plane. The man’s attorney claims he suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and lost teeth as a result of the incident.
However ugly the initial incident was, United Airlines’ attempt to recover via social media was even worse. In the words of Wasp Barcode, “the best way to deal with a PR disaster is not to have one in the first place,” but you can learn from United’s mistakes to protect your own operation from the threat of a PR disaster.
The CEO’s Response
The first major error United committed in its attempt at social recovery came when its CEO, Oscar Munoz, promptly issued a statement. His timing was admirable, since he responded within hours of the online uproar, but his phrasing did nothing but make the situation worse:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
The language was cold, flat, and sounded legal. Rather than apologizing, showing remorse over the incident, or attempting to shoulder any of the responsibility, Munoz shifted the blame to the customers involved.
To be fair, Munoz had to take care to avoid discussing specifics before the carrier’s investigators and legal counsel had reviewed the matter, but a heartfelt or genuine note would have gone a long way toward restoring customers’ respect for the company.
Munoz has since apologized more sincerely and repeatedly for the incident, but it may have been too late to enable the brand to recuperate from its PR catastrophe. First impressions make the most impact, and by the time Munoz started to say the right things, most people had probably made up their minds and stopped paying attention.
Unavailable Through Social Media
In the wake of the brutal video seen by millions of people all over the world, one can’t be surprised that United’s PR team was overwhelmed. Its social media accounts were swamped with thousands of comments and criticisms, from angry accusations to tongue-in-cheek jokes, and it’s impossible to keep up with that much volume, especially while you’re putting out other media fires.
All in all, though, United’s follow-up attempts to communicate with its clients were lackluster, to say the least. After tweeting out the CEO’s initial response, few attempts were made to explain the situation further, respond to comments of concern, or answer customer questions.
None of this was helped by the fact that just a few days later, a couple flying to Costa Rica for their wedding was removed by a United Airlines Marshal after they sat in the wrong seats, even though they shifted to the correct seats after being asked. United has not announced whether bookings have declined in the wake of these incidents, but the company’s stock price has plummeted significantly in the course of the past week.
What We’ve Learned
For marketers, PR managers, entrepreneurs, and other individuals who have a vested interest in maintaining an online image, take the following tips from United’s massive mistakes:
- Respond immediately. Don’t let the ill-informed crowd escalate the situation before you have a chance to respond. As soon as possible, acknowledge proactively what’s happening and get involved in the conversation.
- Be sincere. If your message sounds like it was written by an attorney or a robot, it’s not going to go over well. Put some genuine concern into it, especially if you can imagine what your customers are apt to be feeling.
- Talk to your customers. Don’t hit auto-reply to satisfy your customers; have some real conversations with them. Find out what their concerns are and address them.
- Circulate complete, accurate information. If inaccurate information is circulating, nip it in the bud. Be direct, honest, and thorough about what you know.
By all means avoid PR disasters when you can, but if you can’t, these tips should help you to avoid making things a whole lot worse.
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.
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