The new United Airlines crisis demonstrates the power of a digital world. It graphically illustrates that when brands and customer service-driven organisations do something which is evidently wrong, there is no hiding place. Millions of people get to see it and experience it, writes Mark Stretton.
The crisis confronting United right now is playing out before the public – from the initial incident through to the company’s performance in responding appropriately. There is little doubt that this incident, on a flight from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday, has severely damaged United’s reputation and image. It may well impact customer loyalty and usage.
If you haven’t caught the incident, United (one of the ‘big four’ carriers in the US) overbooked an internal flight so asked for four already-seated volunteers to come forward if they were prepared to be ‘bumped’ off in exchange for compensation. Having offered $800 per ticket, they got three people willing to be ejected. When a fourth failed to put their hand up, aircrew drew a seat number at random as a way of solving the issue. The randomly-selected passenger refused to leave the plane and was forcibly (and violently) removed by a security guard and a police officer.
Footage of the incident was captured by fellow passengers. It was bad and included pictures of the bloodied man’s face, which was beamed across social media, and on national and international news websites.
Very quickly, Twitter was alive to the incident and damning of the company and airport staff. Social media was also quick to poke fun at such an obvious customer service failure – witness the hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos.
Lack of empathy
The whole issue was compounded by United CEO Oscar Munoz who described the affected passenger, a doctor, as ‘belligerent’ and, more astonishingly, ‘disruptive’. A follow up statement by Munoz fell well short of what was required and jarred with the scenes from the plane beamed from fellow passengers’ phones.
Munoz should have recognised the severity of the situation and have been at pains to apologise, explaining to customers and the public what steps he was personally taking to ensure that this could never happen again. His apparent lack of empathy, judgement and inability to offer the appropriate assurances places a question mark over his ability to lead the company.
A number of communications specialists have had their say on the story via PR Week – including senior bods from the PRCA and agencies Ketchum and W, and they all – in their various ways – nail it. It’s worth a read for anyone engaged in brand and reputation management.
It’s extraordinary that a business of United’s size could react so inadequately. It needs to start demonstrating that the company ‘gets it’.
However, it is not United’s first brush with a crisis – just two weeks ago the company was embroiled in controversy for (ridiculously) questioning the way two 11-year-olds were dressed for a flight (they were wearing leggings). The two children were made to change and it played very badly on social media.
Way back in 2009, the airline became something of a poster child for the emerging power of social media when musician Dave Carroll’s song ‘United Breaks Guitars’ went viral on YouTube, with over a million hits in the first three days. It’s well worth a look.
For United, it’s time to change. The apparent inability of its people to do and say the right thing and to make the right calls – from ground staff to CEO – suggests not just completely inadequate protocols, systems and training, but a deep-rooted problem pertaining to culture. Unless it fundamentally reviews the way it does things and the organisation it wants to be, this crisis will not be its last.
Mark Stretton is Managing Director of Fleet Street Communications. Follow him on twitter @markstretton