Vox pop: kicking and streaming, the United Airlines scandal

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

The internet was recently swamped with footage of United Airlines staff dragging a passenger off one of its jets. The Drum Network asked some of its members: what does the scandal say about the airline's customer service and how will this affect the United brand going forward?

Danny Turnbull, managing director, Stein IAS

Having travelled with United, I’m not surprised to some degree – their ‘customer service’ is infamous. But, bloodying a paying customer (a doctor, not a drunken stag do reveller) just to maintain its operating crew schedule plumbs new depths. The scandal is indicative of the way many airlines the world over seem to prioritize profit over their customers’ experience (who many treat like cattle).

Those that can build a strong, trustworthy brand buy themselves some equity when things inevitably go wrong. Building and maintaining a brand isn’t just about mass awareness – it’s about having the right kind of reputation. Virgin and the Middle East airlines have it right because they know that good customer service means repeat business and that trumps any gains from squeezing margins or inconveniencing passengers. In recent years, Ryanair have backtracked from their ‘all publicity is good publicity’ stance for the very same reasons. If United and its CEO are to get through the next few weeks without a widespread boycott occurring, it needs to come up with some creative groveling techniques. A bit of humour and self-depreciation always helps to take away some of the hostility. Plus, with Donald Trump and Sean Spicer around, we’ll soon have something else to get us all riled up about.

Kris Boorman, digital marketing executive, Sagittarius

What really surprised me about the whole thing is that United seem to have forgotten how quickly a bad customer experience can echo across the web. After losing $180 Million from the “United Breaks Guitars” scandal, you think they’d have learned! What is very clear is that there’s a gap in their training that means staff will consider violently assaulting a paying customer before considering offering a better form of compensation or incentive to give up a seat... I expect new laws will be written over this. Not great for a brand to have a law named after you!

Josh Whiten, digital marketing director, Sagittarius

'The UA scandal provides two valuable lessons in digital reputation management for travel brands. Firstly how the actions of local contractors acting in your brand's name can have a serious impact on your brand, which consumers will always see as ultimately responsible. But more importantly the speed at which negative coverage can spread online. This just reinforces the need for brands to be actively monitoring their online environment of search results and social media then have a robust process and response in place, which is joined up between PR, digital, social media and customer service.’

Andrew Andersz, PR director, JJ

Last month the United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was named PR Communicator of the Year by a trade publication and PR Week called him "a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications". His understanding of the value of communications seems to have deserted him this week as a combination of what could be interpreted as corporate arrogance and a need to respond quickly due to the impact of social media exposed him and his company to worldwide outrage and ridicule. Dealing with an incident exposed by social media is a thankless task at best as there is no thinking time, nor time to consider properly the implications of what is to be said and when you’re having to react quickly you can struggle to manage the message.

If Munoz, or his PR minder had remembered the basics of the 3 Rs (Remorse, Reason, Remedy) and coupled those with a little humility the result could have been so different. He and United Airlines would have been better thought of if he had simply said ..”I’m very sorry for what has happened, I will personally investigate why it happened and I can assure it will not happen again.” Simple, to the point and it would have given him and his colleagues some breathing space, Instead he tried to wing it!

Bill Shaw, PR director, JJ

This incident proves without doubt that there is such a thing as bad publicity. The problem for United Continental is that its CEO’s response has turned a PR crisis into a potential PR catastrophe. While hindsight may be 20/20, Oscar Munoz should have first and foremost made it clear that the physically violent tactics his people deployed to remove the passenger were wholly unacceptable and made it clear to both the wider public and his people that there could not be a repeat of an incident of this kind again. I suspect his problem is that his staff were using approved procedures, which is why he gave his support for their actions after the incident.

Situations like this one can often make or break a company leader – they are paid to think and act quickly and decisively. Mr Munoz, however, spoke out without due consideration, putting company policy ahead of the well-being and safety of one of his customers. He should have stood tall, took full responsibility and admitted that this enforced removal was completely wrong and then set out how he is going to change the airline’s policy so it will not happen again.

While a brand like Ryanair has never suffered from having a bad media image, they understand their market place which is fully focused on accessing the lowest fares. United Continental are not in this position and I would expect their business will take a hammering from this incident, at least in the short to medium term, unless we see a dramatic turnaround in their actions. I expect a review and change of their ‘voluntary removal’ practices but would also not rule out a potential resignation at the highest level. Regardless of what they do, it will take a huge amount of time and effort before the company restores its reputation.

Léonie Sidgwick, senior strategist, iFour

'Fly the Friendly Skies'. As a brand positioning statement, United are, ironically, offering one kind of experience while very publicly delivering the exact opposite. And when that happens, as we’ve seen, any customer can record and share mishandled situations at the click of a button. The initial poor response from their CEO reiterates the adage; it’s not if a PR crisis happens, it’s when. You need to be prepared.

Think of Ryan Air: if your brand is positioned as no frills with a blunt tone of voice, that sets certain levels of expectation, the customer experience matches the brand positioning. But given the poor handling of the crisis, United would be better off taking a leaf from JetBlue’s playbook following the 2007 week long downing of planes- apologise, own the issues and make changes. It appears a massive internal culture shake-up may be the only way to recover from this latest PR gaffe.

Ian Flynn, head of creative solutions, RocketMill

The United Airlines customer experience management is clearly flawed. Their staff’s actions show a lack of control and a misalignment with their ‘Connecting People, Uniting The World’ shared purpose. Having higher-priority customers does not ‘Connect People’. And forcibly throwing them off doesn’t work towards ‘Uniting The World’. Ensuring a greater diligence on educating their desired brand values to their staff may have meant a more creative, peaceful outcome to the situation as a whole. Paying a little more money immediately to try alleviate the over-booking (either through increased cash rewards, alternative travel for the apparent ‘higher-priority’ customer etc.) would ultimately be less damaging for their business than what has happened as a result of this scandal. United Airlines have lost their customer’s trust, and will now need to work extra hard on it’s CX management to earn that trust back.

David Jolly, account manager and strategist, Else

I need to get from A to B and go at a time that suits me. What are my options? What is the role of the brand when booking airline travel?

I’d argue that many peoples ethical standpoint would be subverted by price-point and convenience. Do people really listen to CEO's? It is the myth or legend that lingers. Weren’t they the ones that cheated on emissions tests? Used powdered baby milk? Were involved in that financial scandal? In any case, the spotlight shifts and there is something else for people to discuss over a split bag of crisps. UAL need to tackle the points of failure, possibly addressing employee engagement and empowering staff to make sensible decisions.

A focus on customer experience was low down United Airlines list of priorities on 9th April, the crisis management was dreadful and the PR woefully inept. #Re-Accommodate trended as spin was chosen over a more conciliatory official response. UAL failed by not anticipating that this practice could escalate and having no reasonable measures in place should it do so. A slow response was possibly a result of being unprepared and balancing public opinion against legal counsel. No doubt the team at UAL were pouring over their terms of business to find an ‘out’ and this took up precious time. The business and brand has been negatively affected by the event yet, they will recover.

Overbooking was not the issue, it was a chain reaction of poor management decisions. The flight was full, asking for “volunteers” was foolish and the $400 compensation, later raised to $800, was paltry. The resultant “it won’t be me” lottery was a risk every passenger was ready to shoulder until it escalated, police were called and the use of force was employed. The debacle with Dr David Dao was completely of UAL’s own making, it got ugly very quickly and it never needed to get that far.

Ultimately, their service cannot be easily boycotted. A quick Google will tell you that UAL has a significant number of routes at favourable times that couldn’t be offered by others. If people were to avoid these flights there would be less of these incidents and ironically lead to a better service. Room to spread out. Will people vote with their feet or take the best deal offered to them?

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