The United Airlines mishap will go down as one of the worst brand blunders of all-time. Let’s recap what happened and see exactly where United went wrong in its response strategy.
Creating a problem out of thin air
The video of Mr. Dao getting dragged off of the plane went viral within just a couple of hours. Nothing riles social media users up like an unsuspecting, ticket-holding passenger getting forcibly removed from his flight.
Before we talk about the PR, it’s important to note that this problem was originally created by poor employee performance, and likely bad training. Everyone associated with your business has a role in its reputation, no matter how high up the latter they are.
United’s response did the impossible in that it somehow made the situation ten times worse. In his first official response, CEO Munoz stood by his employees and defended their behavior.
There wasn’t an ounce of regret or sorrow in his tone. Everything indicated that he thought Mr. Dao was at fault.
Too little too late
Social media users immediately identified the non-apology for what it was and organized one of the biggest backlashes ever seen against a company. Everything from protests to boycotts was in play.
Backed into a corner, Munoz eventually had to apologize. But the timing and the tone were still way off. According to this Business Insider article, the apology didn’t have its intended effect:
“The apology eventually issued by CEO Munoz appeared heartfelt and genuine, but it was too late. The damage, across social media and in the press, has been done. For the next little while, at least, anyone choosing an airline in the US and seeing United’s name will be reminded of the man with the bloody face — and the ghastly word ‘reaccommodated.'”
The damage had been done. While a simple apology could have fixed everything at the start, United now needed a more serious solution.
Taking a page from recent political campaigns, United Airlines decided to change the focus of the conversation. Instead of apologizing for their behavior, they tried to remove the sympathy factor from the story by ruining Mr. Dao’s reputation.
With the help of an agency, they dug up some dirt on his past and published a hard-hitting story. But according to this recent Quartz article, people were quick to identify and see past the distraction:
“Readers have reacted angrily to the story, arguing on Facebook and Twitter that his past is irrelevant to his forceful removal. Indeed: While people on social media, armed with no facts and tap-happy fingers, might have turned the obstinate passenger into a saint, the truth is that his background—clean or dirty—doesn’t matter here. A paying customer shouldn’t need to have an unblemished record in order to fly home on the flight he paid for, without having his face bloodied.”
Not only did this strategy not have its intended effect, but it also dug an even deeper hole for United. In addition to ruining his day, the company was now trying to besmirch his reputation. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work when the public knows that a multinational corporation is trying to spin the story against a customer.
How does this apply to your business?
Not all businesses have as much to lose as United Airlines did. But the same things that led to the downfall of its brand — ego, stubbornness, ignorance, etc. — can take down organizations of all kinds and sizes.
There’s a lot to learn from this story. In particular, businesses should remember the roles of employee training, PR, social media, and brand reputation.
Also published on Medium.