The United Airlines public relations crisis that began Sunday night in Chicago is a reminder that social media — truly an amazing innovation in our 21st century world — can spread facts, videos, pictures, rumors, and even fake news with the speed of a wildfire gobbling up a tinder-dry forest. Forget this reality as a crisis consumes your company, and anything you eventually do or say will do little to stem an all-consuming social media inferno. And your reputation will take a serious hit.
Anyone looking at the United situation can easily see how it could have been prevented from an operations viewpoint. Industry experts have pointed out that United could have offered passengers more compensation to get bumped. Or United could have found another way to handle the four airline employees who needed to get to Louisville.
Having airport security come on board to remove a passenger who needed to get home — dragging him down the aisle — might not have been the best solution. United and security might have gotten away with that 10 years ago. Today, almost everyone carries a smart phone and has easy access to the internet to transmit videos or photos.
For the second time in as many weeks (recall the dress code incident with two young girls), United bungled a PR crisis. In both cases, United didn’t move quickly enough to engage the news media and customers.
A key tenet of those who practice or teach crisis communications is that once a crisis occurs you must contain the issue by disseminating the right information as quickly as possible. In United’s case, the airline failed to act until the matter was the number one trending topic on Twitter Monday and the butt of a tidal wave of internet memes.
A simple, immediate apology would have accomplished many things for United, the least of which would have been to buy more time to investigate the matter. It’s tough for anyone to admit they might have done something wrong. It’s even harder if you’re a $2.3 billion airline whose lifeblood is a reputation built on safely moving millions of passengers across the world. United’s handling of the matter was wrong. They should have admitted it fast, moved on to find out why it happened, and then fixed it.
Instead, United issued the following initial statement from CEO Oscar Munoz:
“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.”
This tone-deaf statement does use the word “apologize,” but does anyone in the real world use or understand what “re-accommodate” means? And do we really care that the event upset people at United? I’d be a little more worried about the passenger who was dragged from his seat and bloodied. Of course this statement did little to stem spiraling social media anger. The creativity behind some of those internet memes and condemnation is astounding. Some even found a way to blend the recent, quickly yanked Pepsi commercial with the United situation. I’m sure, though, that none of this is funny to the thousands of United employees who probably do care about their passengers.
United made matters worse by publicly calling the passenger “disruptive” and “belligerent” in follow-up press interviews. A letter from CEO Munoz to his employees further exacerbated the situation because he appeared to defend his workers. As Monday turned into Tuesday, United finally began to change its tune, accepting more responsibility and apologizing more emphatically.
But it was too late.
Crisis communications can be more of an art than a science. But in a situation where you have simply done something wrong, as was the case here, a company has to do the right thing — often within minutes. How long did it take those videos to hit the internet? I’m not sure but I’ll bet it was within minutes.
Had United fed a sincere, honest apology quickly into the social media beast it might have gone a long way to protecting the company’s most valuable asset: its reputation.
Mark Marchand, a retired senior manager in public relations at Verizon, teaches crisis communications course in the Journalism Department at the University at Albany, and consults on strategic communications.