United hits turbulence in the Unfriendly Skies of social media

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan April 10, 2017
United Airline's latest self-inflicted PR nightmare is a text-book case of how not to handle a PR crisis when you're a company in a social media age with no visible sign of customer-centricity.

Customer centricity in action

It’s difficult to take in the utter incompetence with which United Airlines is dealing with its latest self-inflicted PR nightmare.

In an age of social media, the ineptitude with which the carrier of the Unfriendly Skies is handling its customer relations is a lesson to every other business in the world on how not to conduct yourself in a crisis.

It’s also a perfect reminder that all the CRM and marketing software in the world isn’t worth ten cents when your underlying corporate culture is to regard your customers as a pain in the ass.

I’m sure everyone reading this knows the basic story behind this latest example of United’s shocking disregard for its own image. The airline had overbooked a US domestic flight and did the usual routine of trying to bribe some passengers to give up their seats so that four United staffers could use them instead. Three paying customers appear to have found the price was right and took up the offer. But that still left one seat needed.

So United sent in the heavy mob and forcibly evicted an elderly Asian doctor. The chosen victim - supposedly selected at random - was visibly distressed, as well you might be when you appear to have your head banged off a headrest and then find yourself dragged on your back down the aisle and forced off of the plane.

All of this, of course, captured on video. In the age of the smart phone, nothing like this is ever going to go unrecorded.

So far, so appalling. But once you get past the idea that a commercial airline thinks it is appropriate to call in security to treat paying passengers in this manner, then comes the aftermath and all the evidence of a corporate culture for whom customer-centricity is way down the bottom of the list of priorities.

First came the grudging sort-of-but-actually-not apology from the CEO, Oscar Monoz. This in itself is so badly worded as to simply pour petrol on the flames:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.

Three things to note here:

  1. Re-accomodate - a word meaning, to physically assault and publicly humiliate a paying customer of your business. Whoever advised the use of that term should be fired at once!
  2. Having a passenger assaulted and publicly humiliated really upset United. In other words, will no-one think of the real victims in all this ie poor United.
  3.  Not immediately apparent from this is that last month Munoz was named US Communicator of the Year at the annual PRWeek US awards ceremony in New York, on the basis that he has demonstrated he is “a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications”. Well, clearly everyone has their off days, but even so..

Still, Monaz does go on to promise that the airline will be “moving” to understand what’s happened here - which is about as close to a public mea culpa as you’re going to get - and that:

We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

But there’s a strikingly different tone on view when he sends around an internal email to United staff later where the assaulted passenger was deemed to have been:

more and more disruptive and belligerent.

Digital age lesson here - internal emails in crisis situations are never going to stay internal.

They. Will. Be. Leaked.

So choose your words with care. If you’re “reaching out” empathetically to the aggrieved passenger in the public domain, don’t start calling him belligerent and making him out to be the bad guy in private...or what passes for private for the moment.

According to the Monaz version of events, United staff “politely” and “apologetically” asked the passenger to deplane in accordance with the airline’s “involuntary denial of boarding” procedures.

That’s a somewhat different interpretation of events to the one offered by an eye witness who spoke the US media later. He said that a United official walked onto the plane after all the passengers were on board and announced:

We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight..This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.

Which version of events is the more accurate, we probably won’t get a handle on until the seemingly inevitable law suit. And if United settles out of court, it’ll probably remain unclear, beyond whatever official form of wording is reached.

But the long term point is that the damage is done.

From a perception PoV, you can’t unsee those video clips or not hear the passenger screaming and moaning as security officers bounce him off the plane. All airlines oversell. It’s a practice that results in bad situations like United found itself in yesterday. But not all airlines then decide the way to deal with it is the way that United chose to.

You’d think they’d learn. This isn’t the first PR firestorm to hit United. A few weeks ago, they grabbed the headlines by not letting two female passengers on a flight because they were wearing leggings. Long before that, United was the airline that smashed up guitars and generated YouTube memes:

Today, there’s a whole new generation of memes kicking off, such as United’s new Fight Club Class ticket.





That last allusion to the Pepsi Kendall Jenner video debacle of last week - where Jenner calms a riot breaking out by offering a police office a can of fizzy drink - is perhaps fitting - Monaz used to work there before he brought his communications skills to United.

My take

You just don’t handle a customer-centric crisis like this in this age of social media.

While the customer relations and PR people at United were euphemistically re-accomodating passengers in their imaginations, fellow passengers who’d escaped being assaulted were inflicting their own body blows on the airline’s brand.

For me, United is the nadir of the airline industry. The few US domestic flights I’ve had to take using the carrier have been the worse in my life - and that includes all the budget airlines in Europe. On any business trip to the US, any mention of United is a deal-breaker from my perspective. That’s particularly true after a colleague was forced to take a transatlantic trip to San Francisco using United, on a plane that the Wright brothers might have been familiar with.

The only upside in this from United’s PoV is that the stock market yesterday didn’t appear to get too bothered by the fuss. The downside underlying that is that one explanation for such a phlegmatic response is that this is the kind of trashy behaviour people expect from United. That’s one serious brand problem if that’s the case.

The question is, does United give a damn? I suspect not. If the share price was badly hit, then maybe. But is there a shred of customer-centricity on display at United? Not that i can see. And as I said at the start, all the CRM and marketing spend in the world isn’t going to fix that.