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Marketing Travel Airline

Vox pop: kicking and streaming, the United Airlines scandal

By Andy Black | Editorial Account Executive

Stein IAS


The Drum Network article

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June 22, 2017 | 12 min read

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?

United vox pop

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.

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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?

Marketing Travel Airline

Content by The Drum Network member:

Stein IAS

Stein IAS ( are the B2B Originals, the first and leading global brand-to-demand agency for B2B enterprises worldwide. Stein IAS drives brand progression and revenue growth through highly original and effective creative ideas combined powered by data, intelligence and disruptive technology. Stein IAS has been named a B2B Agency of the Year by the ANA 10 of the past 13 years – and has won the WARC Effectiveness Award (Gold) for B2B the past two and has won the WARC Effectiveness Award (Gold) for B2B the past two.

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Remarkable Group

Sagittarius. Ultimedia. Nemetos Tanasuk. Unify. A new group for remarkable brands and remarkable people. We are Remarkable Group.

We plan the future so you are ready for the customer of tomorrow. The Remarkable Group is an international powerhouse of integrated digital specialist consultancies that offer our clients true partnership and integration at a global scale. We are passionate and expert in digital experience and we put our customers’ customer first in order to drive value from class-leading connected experiences and relationships.

Our performance will always be measured by our legacy. So all of our brands operate with a social conscience, striving to leave the world in a better place than we found it.

We are multiple agencies across Europe, the Middle East and North America focusing on:

Digital TransformationSoftware EngineeringConnected ExperiencePerformance & Analytics

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create clever ®

ifour is a multiple award-winning creative agency based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Founded by Creative Director, Graeme Hall. His vision was to make exceptional design accessible for everyone and this remains the ethos that we still subscribe to today. It’s not just what we do but the way we do it that makes ifour stand out from the crowd.

Underpinning everything is a deep understanding of brand communications. This combined with our genuine partnership approach means that we are proud to develop long-lasting and solid relationships with all of our clients.

Companies come to us from a broad range of industries but they share one thing in common, they’re passionate about what they do. It’s a real privilege to be trusted with bringing someone else’s vision to life, so we care about getting it right. As we’ve grown, we’ve brought in specialists who spark ideas and keep each other sharp. We enjoy working alongside clients, exploring new industries, keeping ahead of the latest trends and raising the bar of creativity.

But everything we do would be pointless if it didn’t get results. So we pool our skills, talents, expertise and passion to deliver creative solutions that get our clients the results they need. We’re proud to have many long-standing clients who can testify to the way we’ve helped their businesses grow over the years.

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Gravity Global

We offer full-service marketing communications including marketing and brand strategy, research and insight, and creative and execution. We're a truly integrated, channel neutral, award-winning and proven team delivering marketing campaigns that truly transform.

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Else London

ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create transformative product and service opportunities.

We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

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• Launching something new

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Our approach is practical, challenging and inclusive — building momentum and alignment as we frame the opportunity and define in detail what it takes to launch.

Want to know more? Call us on +44 (0)203 743 7020 or email

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We are the UK's fastest growing, independent, full service agency, helping businesses grow through marketing performance. We have successfully united traditional creative with our digital heritage to provide brands with a full funnel service, using a strategy we call Total Performance. Our services span Programmatic, PPC, Paid Social, Technical & Content SEO, UX, Analytics, CRO, Creative and Strategy.

We are the #1 Agency to Work For in the UK in 2022 according to Best Companies and have consistently been named in their top 10 Companies to Work For over the last five years. We believe in radical transparency with our team, sharing profits with them along the way, and knowing that if we put our people first, they will do the finest work of their careers for you.

We are trusted by new market entrants and global brands alike, with londstanding partnerships with Kimberly-Clark™, Dropbox, The Telegraph, ZenAuto, HomeServe and USN.

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