United Airlines: Lessons We Can All Learn From Their PR Fail

Even if you’ve never flown United Airlines before, even if you’re never likely to cross paths with them in the future, you no doubt have a negative opinion of the company after its recent PR fail. Footage swept around the world of a paying customer – a doctor no less – screaming and bleeding, while being violently evicted from a plane after doing nothing wrong. Not only that, but the way United dealt with the fall out of the crisis reads like a instruction manual on how to handle a corporate crisis in the worst possible way. Given the way their staff treat their customers, their approach to PR is hardly surprising.

Fortunately most of us will never know how we would react in such a situation. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a look at what happened and learn from it. Nobody wants to make similar mistakes in their own working lives. Let’s unpack a few key points.

Remember: today every disgruntled passenger has the power to publish

You may remember, prior to this episode United had already been in the news for refusing to allow female passengers to board because they were wearing leggings. Subsequently the #Legginsgate hashtag was born. Given the damage that this incident caused to their reputation, you’d think that United might learn from the incident. Perhaps they’d pick their battles a little more carefully in future? Their famously friendly skies were not looking so friendly anymore.

But just weeks later, video went viral of a passenger splattered in blood, being violently dragged from an overbooked flight by Chicago aviation officials. There was public outcry on a number of levels. Some complained about the practice of airlines overbooking their flights in the first place. Others were appalled that a doctor would be forced from the plane knowing that he had patients to see when he got home. Others were appalled at the heavy handedness of the whole affair. Couldn’t they have foreseen that a little more money spent on a decent-enough incentive could have resulted in more volunteers coming forward? Imagine how much they’re spending now on damage control. Would they have acted the same way if they’d been aware that everyone on the plane would be filming and sharing the footage? Perhaps not.

Lesson: Treat a customer poorly and it could go far and wide online.

Transparency and a genuine apology might have made the problem go away

Of course, instead of acknowledging what they did was wrong and apologising for it, the company replied with justifications of how they handled the ‘overbook situation’ and using hideous corporate speak, describing the process as ‘re-accommodating’. Yes, the guy suffered a broken nose, lost two teeth and requires reconstructive surgery, were those teeth re-accommodated too?

This situation gave the world a glimpse into the company culture at United and it felt like they were trying to cover up what happened and gloss over it like it was business as usual.

Lesson: When you do something wrong, admit it and learn from it. We’re all human – even in business.

Video is powerful

You can be certain that this story told in any other medium would not have spurred such an outcry. It is testament to the power of video. According to analysis of social media data carried out by Brandwatch showed how much damage the incident caused. United’s brand name was mentioned over 762,000 times on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter the day after it went public. Meanwhile #legginsgate, already an unfortunate situation, garnered 135,000 mentions. You can bet it was the video that made the difference.

The company was faced with hashtags like #BoycottUnited and #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, not to mention plenty of hilarious memes. United was the laughing stock of the social web for days. United could have found a clever way to capitalise on this moment, while they were in the spotlight. They could have reassured passengers that it wouldn’t happen again. They could have apologised and changed their policy. But no. A missed opportunity.

Lesson: Video is a great way to capture reality, emotion, immediacy. Real emotions in video can move mountains.

Don’t expect private communications to stay private

In an email sent to employees which was later leaked, Oscar Munoz, the president and CEO of United, is more concerned with the fact that the customer didn’t obey the Chicago Aviation Security Officers orders, rather than the fact that they put him in hospital. He also wrote that “I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” In short, no staff will be reprimanded for how the situation was handled, no company policies will be changed. For Munoz, “fly right” means a paying customer was assaulted and then dragged down the aisle.

Lesson: Just because you take a conversation offline, that doesn’t mean a customer won’t just post it all online if they feel like it. Staff might leak internal emails. It’s par for the course. Don’t write it down if you’re not prepared to stand by it.

Every news story and PR fail has its life cycle. After all, today’s United Airlines drama involves a scorpion stinging a passenger! It’s true that we may not hear about this one again until the passenger takes the company to court. It may not even get to that stage if United doesn’t settle out of court. But it goes to show that social media can be powerful, and it can be the downfall for companies that aren’t doing the right thing by their customers. Kendall Jenner is probably relieved that this spectacle took all the negative attention away from her weird, dreadful Pepsi commercial.


Christian Taylor is a writer and digital marketer and a member of the VKN Digital team. VKN Digital is a digital marketing agency in Hertfordshire, UK. We aim to help SMEs overcome marketing hurdles and create compelling digital content that drives results. If your website needs a refresh, new content, a rebrand, some general housekeeping – or perhaps you’re looking to build a new one from scratch – please get in touch via our contact page for a free Skype consultation. We can also help with SEO, design and social media.

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