It’s no longer crisis as usual for United Airlines, or any one else. Live social media posting has changed what you can get away with in a crisis forever. It used to be that if an airline made as monumental a mistake as United Airlines just did by causing a paying customer who had done nothing wrong to be dragged off a plane screaming, bloodying him up along the way in front of all his fellow passengers, they might still have gotten away with it. Not today.
After all, on a plane, passengers were basically incommunicado, so people couldn’t have protested easily, and they might not have been believed, especially if the airline denied it or called it an “overreaction.” The populace tends to believe its leaders in these situations, if compelling evidence to the contrary doesn’t exist. It rather makes one wonder about how many times such a debacle has happened before, and just not been caught on video.
But today all that changed. Live footage of the assault of an innocent passenger by security personnel was captured and immediately posted on social media around the world, instantly making United one of the most hated companies in the world. Because the plane was still on the ground when this happened, WiFi was still working, and despite some efforts to stop the video taping a few angry passengers managed to capture the whole thing on their phones, and then post it on YouTube and Twitter immediately. Incontrovertible, this evidence has given new meaning to the concept of virality. #United and even #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos started trending on Twitter in hours. China is aghast at the apparent targeting of an Asian physician, all the major networks are covering the story, the stock price has fallen, and every comedian worth his or her salt has weighed in with jokes.
The world has been riveted and appalled. In the social media universe, where denizens wait with baited breath for the birth of a giraffe, they love their winners and losers. And there is nothing better than an uncomplicated story of abuse of power, illustrated by live video that makes viewers feel like they were really there. The ultimate stupidity of United in overbooking its flights to such an extent, insisting upon kicking off paid customers to make room for its own personnel, and then when enough passengers didn’t volunteer, instead of offering them a great deal more money, deciding to physically drag out passengers by force, made for high drama indeed. And United made itself an instant pariah.
Shame on you, United Airlines. You should know better. Your crisis response was as flawed as your understanding of the world as it now is — continually recorded, public and punishing.
Although every industry has its predictable crises, in my field of crisis management, the airlines industry is known for having one of the most predictable array of crises, which makes crisis preparation relatively easy, if gruesome. From a crash, to losing a plane, to mechanical difficulties or failure, to long weather delays, air traffic failures, terrorism or even overbooking, there are relatively few situations that an airline can’t predict beforehand. And that means, the company could prepare for them. They could plan for how to deal with their customers with compassion, humanity, strength and reliability. They could figure out how to not only look good, but be as good as possible in any given situation. And this makes United’s response even worse. They could have, should have, been totally prepared and done better.
Tone Deaf And Heartless
In fact, not only did they not learn from their initial mistakes, the tone-deaf, seemingly heartless nature of United’s public responses got progressively worse. They “apologized” for the wrong things (“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”) And they didn’t apologize for the things that called for it. They seemed to be saying that this was all just business as usual, because it was all legal, as if legality equals morality. CEO Oscar Munoz’s statements to employees and public were shocking in their sang-froid and lack of emotional intelligence (“I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”) They also demonstrate a complete lack of regard for customer care. And by the way — what the heck does “re-accommodate” mean? There was no accommodation made that I can see. It is the worst kind of infuriating double-talk imaginable.
This has seriously impacted United’s reputation and value so quickly because it gives us all insight into who and what United really is. It is the definition of reputati0nal risk. And United’s board is almost assuredly getting ready for some major investigation, housecleaning and re-evaluation. Or it should be.
In fact, United has gone through progressive crises over the past several years. Mr. Munoz, now hopefully healthy, was supposed to be an answer to a broken culture. Instead he seems to have become part of the problem.
We Know Who You Are
The bottom line is that ubiquitous cameras, whether they be body cams on police officers’ chests, cell phones documenting a would-be Turkish coup, or mobiles belonging to passengers on a plane, leave no room for the imagination — we can now know what abuses are going on better than ever before. These images show off duplicity and double-talk, and vacant promises that companies and people make to mislead.
In crisis, we are all only as good as our weakest link — and today weak links are going to be exposed. My favorite lesson regarding reputation is that the things you most would like the world to know, it won’t care about. But, the things you least want it to know, it will care about very much indeed. Today United is learning this lesson, we hope, but it is one we had all better learn. Customer-centric behavior is not just good business anymore, it the core upon which all business must be built — or lost.