CHICAGO: After video footage of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight was posted online, the actions of the airline's chief executive officer in backing his staff and describing the passenger as "disruptive and belligerent" has done nothing to defuse the situation.
Smartphone video of a man with a bloodied face being dragged down an aeroplane aisle by Chicago aviation security officers as fellow passengers objected to his treatment quickly went viral.
It appears that the flight was not overbooked in the usual sense, as is common practice among many airlines selling more tickets than there are seats, but that United wanted seats for four airline crew heading to Kentucky to take over another flight. When no-one volunteered to give up their seats, the airline chose four passengers at random, one of whom, claiming to be a doctor, refused to leave and was subsequently manhandled off the plane.
Inflicting physical pain on paying customers, unless in a niche business area, generally requires an apology, but the less than fulsome effort of CEO Oscar Munoz – "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these passengers" – failed to dampen the anger of social media commentators.
That was compounded when it emerged in a separate internal communication that Munoz had praised the way crew members had dealt with a "disruptive and belligerent" passenger – social media not always distinguishing between airline staff and aviation security staff.
"When you have a crisis, how you communicate around that crisis can have more of a long-term effect on your brand than the actual situation," according to Dennis Owen, Group Manager - Social Media for Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific, who has created a digital social toolkit covering four stages of crisis.
"It's a very short list of what we need to do, what we need to focus on… You don't need a 500-page manual, you won't have time to look at it," he told a conference last year. (For more read Warc's exclusive report: Managing Crisis Communications In 'Real-Time': Cathay Pacific's Approach.)
Having failed to get ahead of the crisis, United now faces the challenge of dealing with the fallout, as many people declare their intention to shun the airline.
Speaking to Advertising Age, Matt Rizzetta, CEO, North 6th Agency, advised dividing a communications strategy into two "customer retention buckets" – one for those remaining loyal to the brand targeted with quick communications that reinforce United's values, and one for those claiming they'll never come back which will require a longer term strategy aimed at rebuilding trust over time.
Data sourced from Advertising Age, Guardian; additional content by WARC staff