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United Airlines crisis delivers a stark social warning

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The PR storm after coverage of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight exploded on social media, shows how the rules have changed. Andrew Hennigan reports

Airlines are especially vulnerable to PR crises, even when they are doing nothing wrong. Incidents like the shooting down of flight MH17 or simply delays caused by a bad storm can lead to negative coverage, so airlines prepare for the worst.

Examples of such crises, hand how they were managed, have been discussed at past – and will, no doubt, come in the future - EyeforTravel events. At EyeforTravel’s North America Distribution Summit in September 2014 Malaysia Airlines’ Dean Dacko spoke about crisis management in the new digital world. And in 2016 Cathay Pacific’s social media guru Dennis Owen spoke about why drastic events require immediate social action at the EyeforTravel Smart Traveller event in Hong Kong.

But the recent incident, an unforced error where a passenger was dragged from a United Airlines flight, sparked an unprecedented storm of hostile social media coverage. New York based media training guru TJ Walker put it like this: “We’re going to be talking about this United Airlines PR disaster not for the next few days, weeks or even years, but for decades…So many things were done so poorly that entire textbooks are going to be written about how badly United managed this disaster.”

Never again

So, what could Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO have done?

One approach could have been to use the same social media that amplified the crisis to respond. “United’s CEO should have gone on Facebook Live on Monday and delivered a heartfelt apology before the stock tumble,” Walker says. “He should have taken responsibility and vowed to make sure that this could never happen again. Then he should have taken questions from the media and public unfiltered.”

By not taking this timely action, a social media PR storm erupted which can be attributed to the convergence of three factors.

1. Smile, you’re on video: practically every customer today has the means to broadcast live video, record it and share it globally. Gone are the days when it was one person’s word against another; we can all see what happened. The video of the United Airlines incident has been viewed millions of times and shared on all social media channels and will still be online years from now. The lesson here is that everyone in the travel and hospitality business should be reviewing policies to ensure that nothing can happen that you would not like to see in a Facebook video.

2. Comedy gets more shares: after everyone has viewed and shared the original video they move to the social media memes based on the incident, keeping the story alive for much longer. There is only one original video and people soon tire of that, but there is an endless stream of memes, like the one presenting a scene from the movie Airplane as a United Airlines Training video. Other memes parody scenes from an Indiana Jones movie, the safety instruction card and safety briefing videos. These Internet memes amplify whatever happened in real life, so by avoiding actions that lead to social media videos these memes will be reduced, too.

3. Mind your language: United unwittingly provoked another wave of outrage through the use of jargon-like terms such ‘re-accommodate’. Already wary of expressions like ‘alternative facts’, social media users enthusiastically share tweets like the observation of a librarian that “Nice to know ‘re-accommodate’ on United now means ‘drag you violently out of your seat’.”  Even the serious dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster joined in with a sub-tweet, snarkily pointing out that 'Volunteer' means “someone who does something without being forced to do it”. To reduce exposure to this kind of social media post, just use the plainest, simplest language possible.

United Airlines is now working to undo the damage but in the meantime the crisis has wiped hundreds of millions of dollars from company stock and it will take a long time to recover from this public relations disaster. Perhaps this has been a wake-up call for other companies to adapt to the new social media reality.

Next week EyeforTravel will be in San Francisco where social media and marketing and data strategies are firmly on the agenda. It’s not too late to join us there to hear from brands that include Hilton, Google, Cathay Pacific and booking.com

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