United Airlines vs The Internet - Or rather, a fine example of how social media can destroy your brand

12th April 2017 Business, Marketing 1260
United Airlines vs The Internet - Or rather, a fine example of how social media can destroy your brand

United Airlines suffered from a massive fall from grace this week after footage of their security team literally dragging a passenger from his seat found its way onto social media. Whilst we are all a little too keen to share our likes and dislikes on our own personal Facebook pages, should a big business be afraid of the awesome power of social media?

The answer is most probably, yes!  With smart phone video footage being easier to obtain than ever before, no one, corporate or otherwise, is safe from social media shaming.  Whilst Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the reams of other social feeds can work for good, they are also an exceptionally fast way to burn a reputation and suffer losses in one fell swoop.

On 10th April, 69 year old David Dao, a doctor from Kentucky, was severely manhandled by law enforcement officers as they tried to forcibly remove him from his seat on a United Airlines flight.  Footage of the incident went viral showing Dr Dao visibly injured and bleeding, being physically pulled from his seat to allegedly make room for “priority” passengers at the airlines request.

Within hours the video was all over the internet, with viewers outraged by the treatment of Dr Dao at the hands of United Airlines employees and law enforcement officers.  While the incident was horrific enough, what could have been somewhat appeased by a profound apology from the airline, instead became a huge PR disaster for them.

Rather than finding some way to soothe the situation, United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, dug himself a massive hole and jumped in with both feet.  In the first press release following the incident, United appeared to be unsympathetic and unreservedly nonchalant about the entire incident blandly stating that “after our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize (sic) for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities”.

This was followed by leaked communications to United Airlines employees from Munoz himself which stated that “the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help - (Dr Dao) raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions, repeatedly refusing to leave the plane” Munoz also referred to the passenger as “belligerent and disruptive”

Of course, the letter, like the video before it, went viral and the whole world soon saw just how tone-deaf the United response was to the outrage building up on social media.  With Facebook and Twitter awash with both angry responses and sharp clap blacks, United Airlines single handled steered its way into possibly the biggest corporate nightmare the internet has seen in years.

Their mistake?  Well, apart from the obvious callousness of treatment received by Dr Dao, was not appreciating just how powerful social media is when it comes to spreading the word - good, or in this case, very, very bad.

Just a few days later and United Airlines shares have fallen dramatically following the negative publicity.  Munoz has had to backpedal and offer a “too little, too late” style apology to the passenger and his family and the airline is now trying to desperately fill seats on flights worldwide.  In an increasingly difficult industry, they have also managed to help their competitors to gain from their loss, with other airlines being quick to jump on social media offering sharp, witty tag lines to encourage passengers to choose their services instead.

The moral of the story - social media is the word!  PR problems do occur, and without any way of stopping the spread of them across the internet, the only way to counteract the fall out is to use platforms to your advantage.  United Airlines thought they were above it all, and that a video of an allegedly unhelpful passenger would not dent their reputation at all.  Bad luck guys, it has not just dented it but blown a huge hole in the side of your business.

Be careful how you use social media to promote your business, and if the worst should happen, remember you are never too big to fall from grace.