Just a fortnight after embroiling itself in a social media storm over #LeggingsGate, United Airlines’ reputation has gone from bad to spectacularly worse. By now the whole world has seen the 30-second video and images of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from his seat and dragged along the floor off the craft with blood running down his face. All because he refused to ‘volunteer’ to give up his seat after the airline overbooked his flight.
Thanks to multiple mobile videos that captured the fiasco on board United Flight 3411, the incident instantly went viral and became a global story. It spawned a backlash of posts from #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos hashtag, which has been trending on Twitter and created such taglines as ‘Not enough seating? Time for a beating.’
It used to be that the media had all the power in a crisis. But the balance of power has shifted. Now it’s ordinary people who influence the media’s agenda. As Paul Furiga, crisis communications expert and president and CEO of WordWrite Communications was recently quoted in The Drum: “In this century, every disgruntled passenger is a potential publisher.” And while this has worked to dissolve traditional boundaries between brands and consumers, it has also made said brands far more susceptible to potentially damaging situations.
Consequently, ‘traditional’ crisis communications just doesn’t cut it any more. With social media having had a massive impact on media consumption and people continually following and sharing news across multiple channels, the approach to a crisis has been turned on its head. Data from the social media monitoring outfit showed that on 26th March, when “LeggingsGate” saw United Airlines hitting the headlines, some 135k mentions of the brand in one day were tracked across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. On the 10th of April, as the footage from this incident circulated around the internet, the brand was mentioned over 1.5 million times.
By significantly altering the rate at which information is exchanged and consumed in this way, social media substantially reduces the window organisations have to respond in moments of crisis. With news travelling so much faster, organisations must constantly track issues and potential crises and respond rapidly while ensuring that their messages are consistent across all channels. However, there are upsides, too. Thanks to social media organisations now have greater insight into what stakeholder groups think about them. Relationships with stakeholders can also be handled directly, bypassing ‘traditional’ gatekeepers such the mainstream media, to tell your side of the story both factually and, critically in a crisis, emotionally.
This is just what United failed to do. Almost as bad as the incident itself, was United’s flailing attempts to respond to it. Its initial statement on the matter attempted to provide context, explaining that the plane, traveling from Chicago to Louisville, was overbooked. Then United CEO Oscar Munoz, ironically awarded PR Week’s Communicator of the Year last month, waded in with his own statement describing the incident as “upsetting” and apologising for having to “reaccommodate these customers.” Then, when this was met with vitriol, Munoz released yet another statement with another apology – his third in 36 hours.
This is a prime example of an organisation’s response making the situation worse. The only approach to a crisis response is one that shows your organisation has empathy for people. The traditional risk-averse, cold, corporate crisis response, such as that delivered by Munoz, can do as much damage as no response. Dealing with people requires a different approach to dealing with media. It requires a more human element, connecting with the public in a genuine and empathetic way.
With #LeggingsGate still fresh in people’s minds, the impact of this incident on United’s reputation is likely to be long-lasting, deep, and mightily expensive. After the event, its share price plummeted $950 million in market value. It also hasn’t helped that the airline is issuing canned responses to customers on social media who are voicing concern about what happened. While social can result in a huge volume of comments and feedback to manage, it also means that if one customer is particularly incensed you can reach out to them directly with a specific message that exhibits empathy and understanding.
So how should United handled this? While online opinion tends to be very volatile and polarised during a crisis, when you’ve literally been caught with blood on your hands, there’s nothing left but to take responsibility, apologise, insist you are putting measures in place to ensure this never happens again, and then apologise some more. Instead, Munoz has issued a series of grossly negligent responses that ignores both his customers’ feelings and the media’s reaction.
I think it’s fair to say that if PR Week was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, he certainly would not be in the running.