United Airlines (or, how not to manage a social media crisis)

We will all be familiar with the disgraceful footage of David Dao being dragged from his United Airlines seat and assaulted in order to make way for off duty members of United’s staff.  As a social media student, beyond the initial outrage, I was interested to see how United would handle the crisis as the video was viewed around the world, not just on news channels, but also platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Weibo, where “United forcibly removes passenger from plane” was the most popular topic.

What did United do as the story took off? Well, I think they were hoping it might just all go away.  The CEO, Oscar Munoz, issued an internal memo (which promptly leaked) which seemed to blame the customer and did nothing but make the situation worse, while the officially issued statement made more of the upset caused to United’s staff than to the assaulted passenger.  United’s response to Facebook and Twitter posts was either to ignore the comments or, worse still, delete them without a word of explanation:

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What’s more, when it became clear the situation would not ‘just go away’ and the chairman issued a further apology, the United airlines Facebook page was not updated for some hours, instead showing the earlier statement as a pinned post, complete with furious comments.

So, what should United have done?

The golden rule if a negative story is going viral is to act fast, very fast.  Issue a sincere (and truthful) apology, acknowledge the error, outline how you will prevent the same thing happening in future and update all of your social media sites to reflect your statement.  Ooh, and don’t say one thing in public and another thing, in writing, to your staff (it will, inevitably, end up in the public domain).

Also, never underestimate just how much the landscape of PR has changed.  A story which might have made the papers 20 years ago but not much else, can now run and run and end up negatively affecting your brand in the eyes of millions of people.  As a Twitter poster noted, social media provided the platform for the story to go viral and for (hopefully) justice to be obtained:

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And as a final note on this sorry tale, social media users also helped United’s competition, altering Southwest’s logo to reflect their ‘different take’ on customer care:

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