Another day, another public relations disaster.
United Airlines is still shaking from a blistering social-media backlash after a passenger was forcibly dragged off a flight earlier this week.
This comes just weeks after the company, whose slogan is “Fly the Friendly Skies”, was ridiculed for refusing to allow two teenage girls to board a flight because they were wearing leggings.
This latest global controversy has been a lesson in human decency, a crash course in crisis PR and a masterclass in social media.
1. A crisis becomes social currency
When your crisis becomes social currency you know it’s bad, bad news.
As nearly all passengers documented the event, there was no shortage of footage for news outlets and social media. Some of the more enterprising passengers make have gone to the likes of Storyful to get their content verified and receive a financial reward in return. Others shared there content freely to raise awareness of the incident, and boost their own profiles while they’re at it. As almost everyone went to grab their phone, a screen went up, passengers were immediately transformed from being participants in the incident, to becoming witnesses and viewers.
However it’s not just those present that got in on the social media action. By Tuesday evening, the hashtag “United forcibly removes passenger from plane” was the most popular topic on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. The video garnered more than 270 million views and more than 150,000 comments in China alone.
A Twitter hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos is dedicated to tongue-in-cheek submissions for replacing the airline’s “fly the friendly skies” advertising tagline.
— kris peck (@krispeck) April 11, 2017
📈’Volunteer’ means “someone who does something without being forced to do it.” https://t.co/qNAcMyplhZ
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 11, 2017
2. From hero to minus-zero
Just last month United Airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz was awarded one of the highest accolades in our industry, PR Week’s Communicator of the Year. They said Munoz is ‘An excellent leader who understands the value of PR.’ This week he faced the biggest test to his communications and leadership strategy, guess what, he failed.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
His apology, in which he said the incident “was upsetting to all of us here at United,” was way off the mark, inadequate and insulting. There was no mention of an apology to the passenger involved, no drastic changes going forward, no emotional connection or human touch. This is not the apology you make when the world is watching, when people are hungry to eat you for breakfast online, and certainly not when you are so called Communicator of the Year.
3. Trial by twitter
Every passenger was a potential citizen journalist. When an incident happens, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it ends up online, it’s absolutely expected. What’s surprising is that United Airlines reacted so poorly to a predictable result. Businesses are slow, too slow, at reacting to possible reputation risks. Research suggests that it takes companies an average of 21 hours to issue a meaningful statement in a crisis situation. This leaves them completely open to the dreaded ‘trial by Twitter’.
Businesses need to understand the new age of social media. They need to be prepared for memes, parody accounts, and spoof videos. They need to have statements read that will calm the storm rather than rip your reputation to shreds. They need to have a process in place that means addressing the issue online in minutes rather than days.
What do you think about the United Airlines PR disaster? Let us know @allgoodtales.