United Airlines has been having a really tough 2017.
By now you’re probably sick of hearing United Airlines’ name in the news. In the past month, two separate incidents have jumped off of Twitter and into the nightly news, prompting more questions than answers about United’s business practices. Notably, the way in which United’s social media team has handled these situations has come under equal scrutiny.
In late March, a United gate agent prevented two teenage girls from boarding a flight for wearing leggings. To United, it was clear. These two girls were enjoying a perk afforded to them thanks to their employment with the airline — being able to ride for free — and thus had to follow the airline’s dress code policy. But to the common observer, United appeared to be policing what women were allowed to wear on a flight.
1) A @united gate agent isn’t letting girls in leggings get on flight from Denver to Minneapolis because spandex is not allowed?
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 26, 2017
Then, two weeks later, United had finished boarding a plane in Chicago when crewmembers came to the gate in a must-ride situation (a situation in which crew members are required, often by federal regulation, to be on a plane to the destination). After a passenger was told he would be unable to ride on the plane to his destination, United called in Aviation Security Officers who forcibly removed him from the plane.
— Tyler Bridges (@Tyler_Bridges) April 9, 2017
Both of these events were shocking and people didn’t hesitate to let United know how they felt on social media. But United’s response to the criticism only made things worse.
When confronted about the leggings incident, United responded by quoting the dress code policy. This went further, as the airline made light of the situation when celebrities jumped on board adding that they’d wear leggings on their next United flight.
The passengers this morning were United pass riders who were not in compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel.
— United (@united) March 26, 2017
A week later, after the passenger was forced to “re-accommodate”, things got even worse for United. Following an abundance of criticism, the CEO released a poorly worded statement that only enraged customers more. He followed up with an internal email (which, of course, got leaked) where he called the customer “belligerent” and “disruptive”. Only after their stock crashed and the company lost over $800 million did the CEO correct the apology and reissue it.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
Quoting policy and defending your brand is not the way to quell concerns. These tactics tend to amplify any momentary negative sentiment associated with a brand.
So what could United have done instead? What can you do if presented with a similar situation?
First, show empathy. Let your critics know that you understand the gravity of the situation. Acknowledging a mistake will allow you an opportunity to win back the public’s trust. Denying or underplaying a serious blunder can dig your brand into an inescapable PR nightmare. Second, demonstrate that you’re doing something about it. People want to know that you’re taking steps to find out as much detail as you can, and then act with this information. Third, find the root of the problem. Often, issues like these are deeply ingrained in the culture of a company. Removing the problem of the day only solves the issue until the next time something happens. Finally, after you’ve implemented a reform, it’s important to remain silent. By continuing to respond you’re adding fuel to the fire and you’re keeping the conversation going. In the modern news cycle, you only need to wait a short time before something comes along and steals the conversation away from your brand.
Social media is the first place people go to complain when society has a problem with your brand. It’s important for you to be active and respond so that you can help to resolve these situations. The key is to respond quickly while never dragging out the conversation. Remember, your customers treat your brand as a person, and they expect to be treated the same in return.