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In-depth Public Relations (PR) Brandwatch

United Airlines PR disaster: ‘In the 21st century, every disgruntled passenger is a potential publisher’


By Ronan Shields, Digital Editor

April 11, 2017 | 8 min read

How United Airlines hasn’t learned its social media lessons

A little over two weeks after embroiling itself in a social media storm over the #Legginsgate controversy, United Airlines' reputational status has gone from bad to worse.

An attempt to “re-accommodate” a passenger on an overbooked flight ended up in a blood-splattered, global outcry that could cost it “up to six-or-seven figures”, according to communications experts, who concluded that the carrier has simply failed to learn its lessons, as well as underestimate the power of social media.

Social media cried foul this week when videos and images emerged of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from his seat by three Chicago Aviation security officials, and then dragged along the floor off the craft, after the airline overbooked his flight.

How the incident occurred

Videos of the incidents and images of its aftermath soon went viral, with the blood-splattered, would-be passenger concerned observed to be uttering the words: “Just killed me” in a disorientated state (check link below), thus prompting popular outcry online.

The confrontation was the end-result of the airline, which runs with the tagline ‘Fly The Friendly Skies’, overbooking Kentucky-bound Flight 3411 departing from O’Hare Airport, Chicago, on April 9, and then asking passengers to defer to another flight in return for up to $800 compensation, plus accommodation fees.

United requested for volunteers to give up their seats in order for it to then use the vacated seats to transfer its employees who were needed for duty in Kentucky the following day. But none of the pre-boarded passengers were willing to take it up on the offer, prompting the airline to select four passengers at random to leave the craft.

However, one passenger selected in the process refused the offer claiming he was a doctor and needed to see patients the following day at the destination, which subsequently resulted in the document fracas and social media outcry, with footage of the incident soon going viral.

United described the treatment as 're-accommodating'

United Airlines Image 2

The airline responded to press reports, with a statement which apologized for “the overbook situation”, with United Airlines chief executive officer Oscar Munoz then issuing a statement describing the incident as “upsetting” and apologizing for having to “re-accommodate these customers” (see below).

United Airlines response

Rule 25 of United’s Contract of Carriage states that: “If a flight is oversold, no one may be denied boarding against his/her will until UA or other carrier personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservations willingly in exchange for compensation as determined by UA. If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority.”

The Drum attempted to contact the airline for comment on whether or not it planned to alter how it articulated said policy, but it was unable to respond by time of publication.

United's reputational damage demonstrated in data

A social media sentiment analysis shown to The Drum by Brandwatch laid bare the depth of the reputational impact the airline had suffered over the incident. Data from the social media monitoring outfit showed the brand’s name was mentioned over 762,000 times on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter the day after it went public (April 10). This was in comparison to the 135,000 mentions after earlier #legginsgagte incident late last month.

“The reason for the larger backlash this time comes down to visuals. The circulating video of a passenger being forcibly removed from the flight has caused mentions to soar,” said a Brandwatch spokesperson.

“Without the video, even if fellow passengers had tweeted about the incident (without images and video), this happening wouldn’t have received the attention it has gotten.”

Understandably, the majority of these mentions were negative (see chart below), with the brand’s social media team unquestionably in for a difficult week ahead.

Brandwatch United Airlines

What the experts say

The Drum contacted crisis communications experts asking their opinion of United’s handling of the situation, with the prevailing assessment being that the airline, as well as the security officials involved in the extraction, had failed to grasp how vulnerable a situation their reputations were in while embarking on such a move.

In an emailed statement, Paul Furiga, president and chief executive officer of WordWrite Communications, told The Drum that airlines are particularly vulnerable to all four forms of major PR crisis.

“Acts of God; acts of man; acts of God made worse by man; and acts of man made worse by God," he observed. "Unfortunately, the airline industry is susceptible to all four kinds."

This is further compacted by the fact that almost every airline passenger is equipped with their own unique broadcasting device, and that (depending on the depth of their social media networks) all customers have the potential to spread their carrier’s shortcomings.

Every passenger is a publisher

Furiga added: “In the this century, every disgruntled passenger is a potential publisher. Airlines have to adapt their social media policies and practices, this means being proactive on social media when something goes wrong.”

United Airlines response

He went on to say: “So it’s not as if airlines couldn’t be ready to take charge on social media when there is an unruly passenger, or one of many other predictable incidents like those we’ve seen in the news recently.”

A 'peculiar response'

Larry Kamer, a crisis communications expert at Kamer Consulting, plus an academic whose former clients have included United Airlines itself, said he found the wording of the under-fire carrier’s responses “peculiar”, especially given the graphic nature of the evidence painting it in a poor light.

“The wording of the statement to ‘re-accommodate’ customers is peculiar,” he says, pointing out that airlines in particular are in a very “risk-prone” business.

He later went on to express his opinion that should staff have been given the autonomy to up the sum of money on offer to those who were willing to switch to a different flight, as the resulting PR crisis is likely to be much more expensive to remedy.

A seven-figure repair bill?

“The costs [of the reputational repair] will easily reach into six-or-seven figures when you factor in the inevitable investigations, lawsuits, image repair advertising, etc,” added Kamer. “That doesn't include the incalculable cost of management distraction, lost morale, and other reputational damage."

Kamer agrees that the current PR debacle displays some shortsightedness for all the enterprise actors involved in the drama. “The likelihood is that the video was probably up on Facebook before the guy was off the plane… there’s no secret places any more. So when you drag a guy off a plane, you have to just expect that it will get out there,” he added.

“This whole process also shows a shortcoming in terms of training for the security, airline and airport staff. You need to assume that everything you do will be broadcast across the internet.”

Furiga went on to explain: “Airlines are among the most public of industries. Just about everything they do is visible to all of us… You can’t hide a jumbo jet — or anything that happens on it!”

So where to now for United?

With hashtags such as #BoycottUnited beginning to organically trend on social media, according to Brandwatch data, Kamer went on to offer his assessment of how the brand can move to repair its reputation in the wake of the outcry.


"They need to ask themselves what are to doing to show people what they saw won’t happen to them… that literally could have been anyone being dragged off the plane,” he said.

Kamer went on to conclude that United’s marketing team now needs to ask itself: ‘what are the lessons learned here?’; ‘what are we going to do to fix it, and show people that it won't happen again?’

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