Social media is a tool that you can use to communicate with your customers immediately. Many companies have failed to properly communicate on these platforms. They think that they can communicate on them in ‘business speak.’ What companies do this, such asUnited Airlines dragging fiasco, disaster ensues.
PR disasters: The Flight 3411 fiasco
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. When doctor David Dao refused the request, he was forcibly dragged out of his seat by airline and security personnel. It was all caught on video and posted to social media:
— Tyler Bridges (@Tyler_Bridges) April 10, 2017
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017
The videos went viral, with many people expressing anger over the incident.
— Kathleen Foell (@FoellKathleen) April 11, 2017
United issued statements apologizing for the flight’s “overbooking,” but did not say anything about Dr.Dao. The company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, also issued a statement regarding 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.
A week of gaffes for United Airlines
United’s bad streak didn’t end there. 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 fell from an overhead bin and stung him on the finger. Fortunately, the flight crew were able to bring in a physician to help him and make sure the sting wasn’t fatal. The company issued a direct apology to him.
This ended on a more positive note, but netizens still took notice and related it to the Flight 3411 debacle.
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
A week later, another PR debacle happened aboard United Airlines Flight 1737. In this case, 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.
Since this happened just 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 similar circumstances, people started comparing the two incidents and calling out United for poor customer service.
— rickhirsch (@rickhirsch) April 17, 2017
How United’s social media team responded and how it got worse
The video of Dao being dragged off of the plane was already enough to create a furor on social media. However, it was United’s attempt 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.”
We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities. ^RD
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
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.
Perhaps you don't understand the word "volunteer"?
— PeterMurtagh (@PeterMurtagh) April 10, 2017
how can someone who didn't volunteer, refuse to leave? The clue is in the term, volunteer. Quite shocking story
— Lincoln Film & Media (@LincolnMedia) April 11, 2017
He didn't volunteer, you chose him, and then ripped him off of the plane. I honestly hope he ends up suing you to no end. This could have
— ☥ || 😚 (@iNYC) April 10, 2017
The height of United’s indifference to the situation was the ill-phrased statements released by the company and Munoz. 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
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
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 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
How social media turned against United
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
— The Miguelasso (@themiguelasso) April 10, 2017
Other brands join in the roasting
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
Even the Gracie Jiu-jitsu school:
What you can learn from United Airline’s PR disaster
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.
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.
Great! Now no one will want to ever go on #unitedAIRLINES so they'll never have to worry about overbooking cause ALL the seats will b empty!
— 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.
Social media is a tool that helps maintain reputation
Brands need to view social media as a means of maintaining their public reputation. According to Brandon LaChance, 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.
A ready-to-respond crisis management team is important
One of the big its use is how long it took to address the public’s outcry. According to Jennifer Muir, this was most likely due to officials’ not listening to their advisers and not being able to respond adequately. A Crisis management team would handle this. They would consist of:
- Public relations professional: This person should be readily accessible for coordination.when a crisis arises.
- Lawyer with experience handling PR cases: They are often the ones who draft statements to avoid potential lawsuits.
- Group of trusted customers: These customers are the ones who are most likely to come to your aid during such situations.
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.
Issuing a sincere apology can help prevent crises from escalating
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 services such our Twitter Retweets Services to spread the word faster.
Don’t be like United, learn to handle PR disasters with care
Public relations crises are considered to be some of the major online hazards for brands. As the United Airlines Flight 3411 incident demonstrated, not knowing how to handle them properly can quickly lead to PR disasters. The key points to remember are:
- Urgency is vital: The company and its officials need to respond to a PR crisis as soon as it erupts.
- Be attentive of customer reactions: Social media provides an accessible medium to gauge customers’ sentiments. Make use of it to engage address their concerns.
- Sincerity goes a long way: When issuing apologies, the company needs to get straight to the point and show genuine regret. This must be followed with the corrective actions to restore customer confidence.
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.