United in a knot

Image by The Red Dress via Bloomberg.com

Via your classmate Joyce:

That breeze you’re feeling is Pepsi’s sigh of relief. In what’s been called the ultimate “hold my beer” move, United Airlines managed to find itself in an even bigger PR nightmare days after Pepsi launched its controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner.

To give a brief recap of the United Airlines incident:

  • The airline had overbooked a flight from Chicago to Louisville and were looking for four passengers to volunteer their seats in order to accommodate four of its employees to make a flight.
  • When none of the passengers (who were already seated) wanted to give up their spots, United selected passengers to be removed from the flight.
  • While three of the passengers vacated their spots, David Dao refused to give up his seat. What ensued was airport officers being called onto the plane to physically drag Dao out of his seat. More disturbingly, Dao was injured in the incident resulting in lacerations on his head. And the kicker to this was that this incident was recorded and shared online.
  • Once made available online, the video went viral.
  • But it didn’t stop there. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz responded to the video in an email sent to employees. In the email, Munoz deflected the blame by stating that United employees followed proper procedures and that Dao was belligerent and had defied airport security officers.
  • Naturally, this email was also shared on social media where people voiced their concern on the tone-deafness of the communication.

I’m sure you know that it’s not uncommon for airlines to overbook their flights. It’s one of the many pain points of flying. I don’t envy the Marketing, Brand and PR departments of airlines. It’s a constant battle of handling customer complaints. But I think the David Dao incident is a really compelling case on how brands and organizations need to be mindful that people (customers and employees) are always watching and we’re at a time when everyone has a camera and video recorder readily available. Gone are the days when someone like Dao can be shuffled aside and provided compensation quietly outside the prying eyes of the public. We live in an age where isolated incidents can have huge reputational and financial repercussions. In the case of United, its stock dropped by 6.3% the day following the incident (http://fortune.com/2017/04/11/united-airlines-stock-drop/).

Case in point, organizations need to be extremely careful about how their brand is being represented at all times. It reminds me of the 2010 incident where a TTC transit fare collector was caught napping in the booth (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ttc-to-investigate-sleeping-fare-collector-1.890811but.

But the point isn’t the necessity for proper employee training and how they represent the organization’s brand. It’s that brands need to be keenly aware and prepared that eyes are on them all the time. All it takes is one incident, one error or even an event taken out of context to collapse all of the brand equity an organization has worked so hard to attain. Going back to United Airlines, even though it was airport officers who were dragging Dao off the plane, the incident happened on a United Airlines flight and the public immediately links what happened to the brand. Not only that, United didn’t get any sympathy from the public when it was revealed that the four seats were needed for employees. Why should United customers need to accommodate the company’s employees?

Overall, it goes to show how a cell phone and a social media platform can have such a huge impact on a brand’s reputation. This definitely isn’t the first or even the last time United will experience a dent in their reputation. What I hope is that the organization learns from this incident and makes the necessary changes on how they address their customers. At the end of the day, they’re in the service industry and customer service should be their top priority.


One thought on “

  1. Saba Lehoux

    Few years ago, a Canadian country music singer traveled with United. Contrary to the story above, he did made the flight and so did his guitar, even though it reached destination broken in two pieces. Some of you may remember that United took a hit when the singer, after multiple tries to get reimbursed for the damage to his guitar, finally fought back by writing a song called:” United, you broke my Taylor guitar.” The song got picked by the media and United ended up with a Pr disaster to deal with. I attached the link of the video of the song below. it is actually very funny and well done. Enjoy…

    Ps. United’s Ceo missed a great opportunity to show that the company learned from their previous Pr debacle. When asked about the latest incident, he should have answered: ” At least this time, we did not break his guitar!” (Sorry for my distorted sense of Humor!.)


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