Monday, April 10, 2017

3 Social Media Lessons From The Latest United Disaster

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You'd think United Airlines would have learned from the "United Breaks Guitars" kerfuffle. Or from the backlash they received by not allowing several women to board their flights because they were wearing 'uncovered' leggings.

You'd be wrong. United Airlines still does not understand social media.

Here's the essential truth for brands: you don't control the message. That era ended more than a decade ago. The epoch of top-down brand communication is over.

Yet on a sunny Monday morning in April 2017, United is once again the top trending topic on Twitter, for all the wrong reasons.

On an overbooked Chicago-to-Louisville flight on Sunday, April 9, United asked for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for travel vouchers, a hotel stay and a rescheduled flight the following afternoon. Needing four seats to accommodate a United crew needing to get to Louisville to staff a different flight, United was only able to garner two volunteers to take up this offer. So, they went the involuntary route...to disastrous results.



First, the video of the doctor being forcibly removed from his seat, lifted by his armpits by a security officer so violently his face bounced off the armrest of the seat in the row opposite that left his mouth bloody, is horrifying. This man was dragged like a piece of luggage down the aisle and off of the plane, stripped of his dignity. You can plainly hear other passengers crying and screaming "this isn't right!"

Secondly: OF COURSE THERE'S VIDEO. It's 2017. Virtually everyone has a smartphone capable of shooting video and uploading it to the social web in an instant. When United decided to involuntarily remove passengers from their overbooked flight--an issue of their own making--and didn't consider the potential negative consequences of this decision, they made a critical faux pas in the social media era:

EVERYTHING IS ON VIDEO.

Compounding this terrible error in judgment, United's initial response to the outcry of disgust was to hide behind a press release in empty corporate blather, taking no responsibility for their actions:
As the deluge of negative social media responses and traditional media coverage wore on, United issued another carefully worded statement, this time from CEO Oscar Munoz, that still comes across as tone-deaf in light of the widely-viewed footage (note to United: apologizing to the other passengers on the plane for having to "re-accommodate them" is a bit, um, off):
3 Social Media Life Lessons From This Shameful Episode:
  • EVERYONE HAS A SMARTPHONE. Inevitably, the footage will show up on social media. Act accordingly.
  • Traditional Corporate PR is useless on social media. Consumers see through these smoke screens instantly. Don't post your press release on Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn and expect a blind acceptance of your explanation.
  • You need a social crisis response protocol. Offer apologies. Take responsibility. Promise to improve your procedures (and do so). Accountability starts at the top and applies to everyone in the organization.
  • BONUS: Treat people with respect. Before they're customers or consumers or passengers or revenue sources, they're PEOPLE. There's your starting point.

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