The backlash of yesterday’s United Airlines debacle is still being felt around the world. Social media and the mainstream press have crucified United for how it has dealt with the situation – and rightfully so. Hashtags have started trending, memes are endless and in depth editorial pieces are everywhere (yes, we are guilty of that too).
With the incident now in the past past (social media moves on that quickly), the main focus of United’s attention is its sad attempt at a response.
How to make a bad situation disastrous
After a lengthy delay United CEO Oscar Munoz released an apology for “re-accommodating passengers” (please? – what about the “alleged” assault)? Apparently trying to navigate sensitively between what he considered his most important stakeholders – the airport, the airport police, his own staff, in fact anyone but the people who pay the bills – Mr Munoz has tumbled deep into the dark hole that is social media.
No-one has the ability to keep up with the rapid flow of social media in a case like this. But, wow, how much does United have to learn? Some real basics, like:
- give the on-the-ground staff some empowerment – vital to quick response;
- find a PR adviser who will shun the lawyers’ caution against admitting fault – Mr Munoz’ failure to acknowledge, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the customer was seriously assaulted has made things massively worse. Today the court of public opinion is much more punishing than any legal claim;
- don’t avoid accepting blame for staff behaviour – even the airport police (not typically the best managers of social media) were smart enough to satisfy the public lust for blood and “suspend” one of the persons involved. That quickly refocussed the spotlight back onto United.
There is so much more. Was United really thinking it would only accept responsibility for asking passengers to disembark a flight they had already paid for, and more importantly boarded?
Then, adding fuel to the fire was an internal email which seemed to blame the passenger for the incident, stating that he was “disruptive and belligerent.” Well, if you are going to aim for the worst public relations recovery in airline history, you could hardly do better than that. A model for case studies for years to come. Come on United, all the world has seen the videos. In case you hadn’t checked Facebook or Twitter in the last 24 hours, there are plenty circulating the web.
And then it became “horrific” (not just the PR bungling). A billion dollar stuff up
Since Mr Munoz’s initial response, United released a further statement at last delivering a full apology. Mr Munoz now said, “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened”. The statement also includes a commitment to review policies and partnerships with airport and local law enforcement. It will be interesting to see what comes of the review and if it is enough to combat the impact this incident has had on the United business.
Regardless of Mr Munoz’s statement, what remains is a multitude of negative press which is already impacting United’s business. It immediately wiped a billion dollars off United’s capital value (although that recovered to just a few hundred million! – how small that $800 offer to release their seats now seems), and celebrities launched on social media saying to their millions of followers that they’ll never travel United again.
Time for Mr Munoz to be sacrificed? Not now
The next round of media is likely to call for Mr Munoz’ head. Now the political classes are – predictably – engaging as well, like jackals around a kill, it won’t be long before the call grows for a human sacrifice. What really needs to be sacrificed though is a corporate culture that clearly has a lot to learn. If sacking Mr Munoz will achieve that then so be it but the reverse is more likely; the airline remains in such disarray after a tumultuous few years that stability is what is needed now.
Spare a thought for the frontline staff who must continue on as if life were normal. They’ve been badly let down by a stupid local decision and aggravated by a Category 1 corporate PR stuff up. They need to regain confidence in their brand and be given the reason to do so.
This won’t be the end of United, but it does need to recover, and from a great depth. Only its staff can make that happen. Sometimes a catastrophe like this can bring out the best in everyone but United has been in the tabloid doldrums for so long that a near miracle will be needed to recover this situation inside a year. If Mr Munoz can’t achieve it by then, he will be gone.
Meanwhile, let’s take a Swan’s eye view of some of the global reviews, memes, tweets and everything in between, from the last 24 hours.
The Financial Times got involved and declared this a “social media storm” and a “PR crisis.” To view the article click here.
Interestingly enough, Financial Times’ Alphaville had the following article online: “Traders appreciate United Airlines’s commitment to ‘cost efficiency’ targets”. This just illustrates that Wall Street doesn’t give a damn about customer satisfaction, as long as the slave drivers are delivering the quarterly goods. To view the article click here.
The Middle East carrier took a very obvious swipe at United and its CEO with this well placed video. After United had laid so many punches on Emirates over the past two years, a bit of bite back must have felt nice!
Fly the friendly skies with a real airline. pic.twitter.com/wE5C5n6Lvn
— Emirates airline (@emirates) April 11, 2017
The hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMoto started trending around the world:
— nizam (@nizam_lazim) April 11, 2017
— James Navarrette (@Liberal_Misfit) April 11, 2017
— SFC_Airborne51 (@SFC_Airborne51) April 11, 2017
— UW (@setv79) April 12, 2017
— #MAGA in the 316👍 (@mikeo159) April 11, 2017