Social media has become an indispensable tool for brands to connect with their customers and the general public. There are times, though, where companies fail to properly communicate on these platforms. When left unchecked, they turn into PR disasters like what happened to United Airlines recently. Read on to understand what went wrong, and how to avoid such major fails.
United’s social media crisis began on April 9, aboard Flight 3411. Airline personnel requested four passengers to give their seats up to make room for crew members who needed to board. When doctor David Dao refused the request, he was forcibly dragged out of his seat by airline and security personnel.
The altercation was caught on videos by several surprised passengers who then posted them to social media platforms.
— Tyler Bridges (@Tyler_Bridges) April 10, 2017
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017
The videos immediately garnered a lot of attention, with many people expressing anger over the incident.
— Kathleen Foell (@FoellKathleen) April 11, 2017
United issued statements both to the media and on its social media accounts apologizing for the flight’s “overbooking,” but did not say anything about Dr.Dao. The company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, also issued a similar statement except this time he referred to it as being a “passenger re-accommodation” incident.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
The statements further drew the ire of the public – both online and offline.
United’s bad streak didn’t end there. The airline found itself in several subsequent PR disasters in the span of just a few days.
On the same day as the Flight 3411 incident, passenger Richard Bell was reportedly stung by a stray scorpion while aboard a United Airlines flight from Houston to Calgary. The scorpion, which was said to have come from an overhead bin, fell onto Bell. It ended up stinging him on his finger. Fortunately, the flight crew were able to bring in a physician to help him and make sure the sting was not fatal. The company later issued a direct apology to him.
While the particular incident ended on a more positive note, netizens still took notice and related it to the Flight 3411 debacle.
Scorpion stings man on United flight to Calgary https://t.co/wOP0SsOekZ
— CNBC (@CNBC) April 13, 2017
Did the scorpion ask for volunteers first or nah https://t.co/UHXkoi6YBy
— Imani Gandy (@AngryBlackLady) April 13, 2017
I SAID WE NEED THE SEAT yelled the scorpion. https://t.co/twrBwAg0gN
— shauna (@goldengateblond) April 13, 2017
To avoid the embarrassment of forcibly removing passengers, United has now equipped all its aircraft with scorpion bouncers. Smart move. https://t.co/lfJDf4a4Gr
— Rex Huppke (@RexHuppke) April 13, 2017
About a week later, a more significant PR debacle happened aboard United Airlines Flight 1737. In this case too, couple Michael Hohl and Amber Maxwell were asked to leave the plane. The two were supposed to fly to their wedding in Costa Rica. Instead, United employees told them they were being “disorderly” simply because they sat in seats other than the ones they had been assigned.
To add insult to injury, United issued a public statement blaming the couple for the incident. Hohl and Maxwell denied the claim, saying they only switched seats because there was someone else occupying their row. While the couple was rebooked on a different flight the following day, they vowed to never fly with the airline again.
Owing to this incident happening just a few days after the Flight 3411 crisis, the story was immediately picked up by news outlets who reported it on social media platforms.
Couple heading to their wedding kicked off United Airlines flight https://t.co/nSb5SBXIio
— The Independent (@Independent) April 18, 2017
United booted a couple traveling to their wedding, just days after public relations fiasco https://t.co/UMwWvdQFir
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) April 18, 2017
Due to the almost similar circumstances, people started comparing the two incidents and calling out United for poor customer service.
— rickhirsch (@rickhirsch) April 17, 2017
The video of Dao being dragged off of the plane was already enough to create a furor on social media. But, it was United’s attempt at trying to control the situation that led to its instead escalating into a full-blown PR disaster.
When the first inquiries about the incident started coming in, the airline’s Twitter team direct the questions to the “proper authorities.”
@btcdefender We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities. ^RD
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
@USAnonymous Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave ^MD
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
The response was, arguably, the first part where United tripped up as they did not give clear details as to who the “proper authorities” were. This led to a lot of confusion and created the image that United was inept at, or even trying to avoid, dealing with the incident.
— PeterMurtagh (@PeterMurtagh) April 10, 2017
— Lincoln Film & Media (@LincolnMedia) April 11, 2017
— ☥ (@iNYC) April 10, 2017
But, what was considered to be the height of United’s indifference to the situation was the ill-phrased statements released by the company as well as Munoz himself. Instead of acknowledging the main issue of Dao being forcibly dragged off the plane, the statements tried to re-frame the incident using the now infamous terms “overbooked” and “passenger re-accommodation”. This was despite there being solid online evidence in the form of several videos.
Munoz’s response, in particular, was heavily criticized for showing a significant lack of empathy for the badly injured passenger.
Principled leadership is filled with grace, empathy, & kindness. This may be why the public was so shocked by the #unitedAIRLINES response.
— Sarah Marshank (@SMarshank) April 19, 2017
@GMA He's showing empathy only because of United Airlines stocks falling and pubic boycotts of his Airlines.
— Linda2375 (@LMiami517) April 12, 2017
Showing customers empathy and compassion first is the best way to recovery. https://t.co/cbAfIHIZTE
— Jim Bass (@JimBassCX) April 13, 2017
In an interview with CNN, Director of the Oxford University Center for Corporate Reputation Rupert Younger said that Munoz’s response was disappointing. He added the company should have moved much quicker to contain the damage caused by the incident.
Munoz did eventually acknowledge the Dao incident saying it was a “humbling experience.” He added he took full responsibility for the incident and asserted United would do everything to rebuild their reputation. However, many netizens said the official’s apology was a case of too little, too late.
I would buy Oscar Munoz's apology if it was the first statement he issued. But the change of stance makes it insincere #UnitedAirlines
— James B | OpusDragon (@DragonForza) April 12, 2017
Upon the release of the videos on social media, the incident was already shaping up to be one big PR disaster for United. But apart from the deluge of angry tweets and comments, the public found other ways to call the airline out for their ineptitude.
One notable ruse involved irate netizens turning United’s own social media campaign against them. Following the debacle, social media readers hijacked the company’s #UnitedJourney hashtag to show their disgust.
— United (@united) April 5, 2017
— Wayne C (@MDSasquatch) April 11, 2017
— J.D. Goon (@TheJDGoon) April 11, 2017
— Nick Smith (@UMaineiak07) April 11, 2017
Ironically, United had just launched the PR hashtag campaign in an attempt to recover from an earlier social media debacle. That earlier furor erupted after the airline barred two teenaged passengers from boarding simply because they were wearing leggings.
Soon, netizens’ hashtags mocking the company, like #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, started to trend.
We turn doctors into patients #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos
— Lynsi Ballinger (@nurselynsi) April 15, 2017
— Dave.Walbridge (@AdviceIShouldHa) April 18, 2017
Memes were also heavily used to show public sentiment over the incident.
— Linquel Isswell (@linquel) April 10, 2017
— Miguel (@migueldarko) April 10, 2017
While public outcry was already a PR disaster for United, they found themselves sinking lower when rival carriers started trolling them.
Fly the friendly skies with a real airline. pic.twitter.com/wE5C5n6Lvn
— Emirates airline (@emirates) April 11, 2017
Other brands also joined in on the fray, getting free exposure at United’s expense. These included Merriam-Webster:
?'Volunteer' means “someone who does something without being forced to do it.” https://t.co/qNAcMyplhZ
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 11, 2017
And, even the Gracie Jiu-jitsu school:
One of the most important lessons that was taken from the whole incident was that social media has a large influence on public opinion.
The real-time nature of platforms like Twitter means any incident involving major brands reaches the public almost immediately. In the case of the Flight 3411 incident, videos were posted on social media sites almost as it was unfolding. This meant public opinion was being shaped from the moment people started posting their comments. The more connections and followers the posters had on social media, the faster the opinions spread and went on to influence others more.
The impact of social media PR disasters is also far reaching. Following the debacle, United saw its stocks fall rapidly at the height of the issue resulting in a loss of more than $1.4 billion. This, in turn, further fueled negative sentiments about the brand.
— Melody 22 (@Melody22M) April 12, 2017
As such, marketing experts stress the importance of companies constantly listening to what is being said about them on social media and responding accordingly.
Apart from being a tool for tracking public commentary about them, brands also need to view social media as a means of maintaining their public reputation. According to Brandon LaChance, Advertising and Digital Marketing Director for restaurant chain CKE Restaurants, companies now have access to a means of a two-way dialogue between them and their customers. LaChance said companies should always be prepared to tackle any issues brought up by the other party. In the case of United, it’s social media team’s refusal to give people proper details about the incident showed a major disregard of that point.
Being proactive on social media is also important to ensure that a company’s reputation is effectively maintained in the event of an impending PR disaster. This was one of the crucial mistakes that United made as it took them several hours to respond to the initial spread of the video on Twitter.
One of the big questions about United’s response to the incident was why it took them so long to address the public’s outcry. According to Public Relations Institute of Australia President Jennifer Muir, this was most likely due to officials’ not listening to their advisers and not being able to respond adequately.
This is where having a crisis response team is important. According to Inc.com’s Adele Cehrs, the team should have the following personnel:
United’s inability to handle the initial onslaught of questions and comments surrounding the incident seemingly indicated that such a team was not present.
Forecasting risks also plays an important role in mitigating the damage done by a negative PR incident. In the case of United, they were just recovering from a previous social media crisis. That earlier incident should have given them useful insights into how to respond appropriately.
During the course of the PR disaster United and Munoz issued several different statements. However, they didn’t immediately acknowledge the central issue. This created an impression that Munoz, in particular, was not being sincere about the whole issue.
His response can be compared to that of United’s Senior Vice President Sandra Pineau-Boddison who, following a major shutdown of the company’s booking system in 2015, immediately issued a video statement on Twitter apologizing for the mishap:
We know how important your travel plans are to you, and we’re sorry for today’s disruptions.https://t.co/kHGSiWiFv0
— United (@united) July 8, 2015
As speed is crucial when issuing apologies, companies can make use of such services as bought followers to help spread the word faster.
Public relations crises are considered to be some of the major online hazards for major brands. As the United Airlines Flight 3411 incident demonstrated, not knowing how to handle them properly can quickly lead to PR disasters. When dealing with such cases, there are key points to remember:
By ensuring that these points are met, a company will not only lessen the negative impact of such disasters, but also be able to easily bounce back from it.