Re-accommodating the blame: What can United Airline’s PR crisis tell us about social media?


United Airlines is under fire this week after a video surfaced online of a man being forcibly removed from a flight. But would the story be different if social media hadn’t played a part?

This month at Billian IT Solutions we’ve been thinking about social media; offering up our tips on how travel companies can use it as a marketing tool, assessing the benefits but also the potential risks that social media presents to travel brands. Well, by unfortunate coincidence the risks have been more than illustrated by the current PR crisis playing out for United Airlines. This just goes to show the formidable power that social media can wield.


Re-accommodating the blame: United Airlines PR Crisis


For those unaware of the story, United Airlines passenger Dr David Dao was forcibly removed from a flight after refusing to give up his seat, a request that the airline initially attributed to the flight being “overbooked”, in a scene that was filmed by a fellow passenger and shared on social media on Sunday evening. The disturbing video shows the doctor being dragged down the aisle with a bloodied face, after colliding quite painfully with an armrest.

It’s irrefutable to most of us that no person should be treated in such a humiliating way, particularly a paying customer experiencing a significant inconvenience through no fault of his own. The aftermath so far has been quite devastating for United Airlines, with CEO Oscar Munoz’s statements regarding the fiasco coming under intense scrutiny, stock prices plummeting, and even accusations of a Twitter cover-up.

But what exactly does this have to do with social media?

One can’t help but wonder how differently this story might have played out had a concerned fellow passenger not filmed the ordeal on their smartphone and shared it with the world. Would this just be a few short news stories about an out-of-court settlement, lost among our newsfeeds?

Sure, there would still be a number of witnesses and a busy few weeks for United’s complaints department no doubt, but it would likely have remained quite contained. Social media opened this situation up to the public forum and gave everyone an opinion. Not only that, it ensured an almost resounding negative reaction by giving the public one key element – proof.

The incident itself is not open for debate, but the way the company subsequently deals with it is.

United chief executive Munoz’s first statement following the event attracted a backlash from commenters on social media, with many accusing the airline boss of downplaying the misdemeanour when he apologised “for having to re-accommodate” passengers. Munoz has since released another statement, which arguably sees the airline taking more responsibility for the incident – but has the damage been done?

In the age of social media, every word we write publicly is open to interpretation and, intentional or not, anything that could be construed as deniability will be broken apart by vocal internet users – no matter how carefully you select your language. The only course of action when the stakes are this high is to admit responsibility and reassure the public that you are working to make amends.

The story is also gaining further traction after claims from some Twitter users that their tweets expressing dismay regarding the incident were being removed without warning. Whether these tweets are being intentionally disappeared or not, in the year of “alternative facts” it is an allegation that is sure to resound with journalists and social media users alike, not to mention a prime example of how seemingly unrelated social factors can spell trouble for brands in times of crisis.

The United Airlines debacle is ongoing and it’s yet to be seen what lasting effects the scandal will have on the company, but travel brands can learn a couple of key things from it.

Firstly, that your employees and your procedures for unsavoury situations represent your brand – you are only one tweeted complaint away from disaster. Ensure your staff are equipped for the tricky scenarios.

Next, be transparent and prompt in your response to complaints made via social media – no sidestepping or burying your head in the sand! Reassure and inform your customers and the public on how you are dealing with the situation and, of course, follow through on it.

If you don’t, your customers will likely take the somewhat less-risky decision of re-accommodating themselves.


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Billian IT Solutions provides online travel booking technology and other travel technology solutions for agents and businesses of all sizes. With over 20 years experience of providing industry leading travel software solutions to customers worldwide, we can recommend the right solution for you.