United breaks passengers to stay on schedule

"When your business has a reputation for breaking guitars to stay on schedule, your customers don’t need a huge amount of additional evidence to believe you might well break a few passengers too if it’s going to protect your bottom line."


The recriminations for United Airlines following the brutal treatment of one of its passengers on Flight 3411 on Sunday night must be becoming quite overwhelming for those employed to manage the brand’s reputation. Any time your organisation needs to call in three solidly-built security guards to rectify a stuff-up of your own creation, you should see it as a big red flag for operational failures occurring on the ground. Injuring a paying customer shouldn’t be part of any operational handbook. But nor should United’s similarly insensitive approach to customer communications and crisis management.

Source: @kaylyn_davis (Twitter)

Much has and will be written about the appropriateness of forcibly removing – or “reaccommodating”, as United described it – a passenger from an aircraft, especially when he appears to have a valid ticket and hasn’t been in any way violent.

But as a pure reputation management exercise, the response to the incident suggests United’s techniques are still as subtle as a sledgehammer.

What can we learn from United’s approach?

Know thy history

United is by no means inexperienced in managing social media crises. In fact, the airline is something of a pioneer in its ability to turn isolated operational challenges into full-blown social media crises through sheer dogged determination not to take offline criticism seriously.

Eight years ago, United broke a customer’s US$3500 guitar while in transit. Operational mistakes such as this happen to even the best of businesses. But United’s fierce resistance to covering the US$1200 repair bill – even after nine months of waiting patiently for the airline to see the error in its ways – turned what was an isolated incident into a significant reputational crisis when the unhappy customer posted a song to YouTube called “United breaks guitars”.

The video, with tens of millions of views and worldwide media coverage, did significant damage to United’s reputation. It remains one of the finest social media crisis case studies available to businesses looking to avoid the same mistakes.

United breaks guitars (Source: YouTube)

Make no mistake, public reaction to the latest incident is social media outrage in full swing. But when your business has a reputation for breaking guitars to stay on schedule, your customers don’t need a huge amount of additional evidence to believe you might well break a few passengers too if it’s going to protect your bottom line. Knowledge of your own corporate history should be sufficient incentive to get your customer relationships right.

Know the difference between reputational risk and operational risk

Gone are the days when the biggest brand challenge an airline faces was a plane crash. Aviation is incredibly safe and most passengers have reconciled themselves to this fact. The issue of most concern to customers isn’t whether they will arrive at the destination, it’s whether it was a comfortable journey, the luggage is still in one piece, the food was tasty and if the staff were friendly.

Unfortunately, operational risk experts and bean counters tend to focus on the big ticket challenges that can bring down a company. They look for scenarios that have quantifiable business impacts – like the unexpected shutdown of a major industrial facility or the loss of a big client – and often ignore the little risks that, if poorly managed, can become a much bigger headache.

A US$1200 guitar repair bill will always be a low-priority with such a view of risk. So too will having an appropriately-resourced and effective communications function that can mobilise when things go wrong. Don’t make the mistake of calibrating reputational risk based on operational risk. There is often very little correlation between the two.

Know thy customer and treat them with respect

Just a few years ago, disgruntled customers, neighbours and critics had to resort to hyperbole to gain an audience for their concerns. Big brands faced a much lower risk that isolated incidents with a handful of witnesses would become the lead item of the day’s news. In the unlikely event the story did emerge, the company would have all day to formulate a response. In 2017, when witnesses and victims have high-definition cameras in their pockets, video evidence trumps corporate obfuscation and spin every day.

Any incident that injures a customer is serious. But for United, the outrage is dialled-up when the public learns the victim’s profession (he claimed to be a medical doctor who needed to see patients the next morning) and cultural heritage (the passenger claimed he was targeted due to his Chinese heritage). The only way the outrage can be higher would have been if the passenger was a pregnant mother or an octogenarian.

The brutal and disrespectful treatment of the passenger was inexcusable. But United could have reduced the public outrage by treating the passenger with more respect immediately following what it agreed was an “upsetting” incident.

United’s response was insufficient.

Source: Twitter

Any time a weasel word such as “re-accommodate” appears in your company response, go back to the proverbial drawing board. Similarly, if the most upsetting thing you can identify from such an incident is the fact you had too many passengers on the plane and had to tell some to leave, you will be fuelling public outrage, not reducing it.

Provided the airline follows through on its commitments, a better statement would be:

"This is an upsetting event for everyone involved. I apologise for the obvious injury and distress caused to the passenger. His treatment was completely inexcusable. United is seeking to contact the passenger to provide every possible support and to apologise for his unacceptable treatment. It was also an upsetting experience for other passengers and for this I unreservedly apologise. Our team has commenced an investigation into how this incident was allowed to occur. We will provide more comments once we have all the available facts."

Click here for more tips on responding with a simple message, delivered with the right tone.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • LinkedIn Social Icon