The five mistakes that shaped United’s crisis

United's social storm

At 7:30pm on Sunday 9th April passengers aboard United Airlines flight 3411 started tweeting about an incident as they waited for take-off. Some tweeted the airline, others local news channels. Several took pictures and video of the chaos on board as one passenger (69 year-old Dr. David Dao) was dragged through the plane like a sack of spuds, only to run back on the plane bleeding from the head before being removed again.

The passengers who were asked to leave the flight – or, in one case forcibly removed from it – had paid for their tickets and passed security. But United had a policy – employees of the airline took priority – even if it meant ‘bumping’ paying customers from the flight they were already seated on (let’s call this mistake no.1).

So, the employees took their seats and the plane eventually took off.

Mistake no.2

Hours later, the news was making waves on social media, and United issued its first statement. A rather dry statement when compared to the intense emotion of the passenger with a head wound screaming as he was being dragged down the aisle.

“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.”

Mistake no.3

Monday morning: United’s social media team sprang into action – by replying to questions people were asking them on twitter with sentences copied from the statement.

This not only looks lazy – it looks like the airline doesn’t care about what people are saying, they just want them to stop saying it.

People, of course, don’t shut up – they get louder, bombarding the brand with questions and criticisms. Sharing the video and the news as widely as possible. Setting up fake Twitter accounts…

Mistake no.4

Monday afternoon: the United twitter account posts a statement from the CEO which talks about how upsetting the event was to all at United and apologises for needing to “re-accommodate” customers.

After reading the first two sentences, the next two could say almost anything – I’ve stopped paying attention because I’m already offended. An apology for needing to (literally it would seem) bump customers from a flight highlights the lack of understanding about the real issue here.

United’s first statement points out that the passenger wasn’t dragged off the plane by United staff, but airport security. So, United is apologising for its role – bumping customers from the flight. No one in charge seems to understand that for the millions of people sharing the story, it’s the brand that dragged the man through the plane.

Mistake no.5

Monday evening: Twitter picks up on an email sent to United staff from its CEO. In which he expresses confusion over the passenger’s defiance.

It’s not clear whether anyone considered the possibility that internal emails leak and that many people would find the contents of the email distasteful.

The shockwaves

By Tuesday, the outrage the video caused on social media had spread around the world. The story got posted to Weibo – China’s largest social network – and had 46 million views and 34,000 comments.

Tuesday morning saw $1bn wiped off the share price.

The course correction

Sometimes it can be difficult for businesses to understand outrage, but share prices are a different matter. Tuesday afternoon saw United’s CEO issue another statement – this one was crafted by someone who understood why people were outraged and who appeared determined to ensure no passenger ever experienced the same treatment on a United flight again.

That Friday, United amended its policy on employees bumping passengers off flights. Employees would need to show up an hour before take-off to guarantee themselves seats on the plane and not take the seat of anyone who had already boarded. United said that this was just a first step in the review of its policies.

Logic versus empathy

Logic and empathy aren’t mutually exclusive.

United could have easily ensured that its first statement had the power and language of the one it issued on Tuesday. Instead, it appeared to over-analyse the situation. “Well, our guys were right to kick those people off the plane, it’s in our rule book,” is what it appeared to say, meanwhile the rest of the world screamed at the way the passenger was treated.

It may not have been United staff dragging the doctor out, but it was the airline’s policy that instigated the confrontation. It was the failure of its employees to say – or be able to say – “hey, maybe we should let the doctor keep his seat”. It was the assumption that passenger’s lives and responsibilities are less important than getting United employees across the country on time.

This isn’t the first time that United’s been in trouble for ignoring the impact it has on passengers’ lives. It’s probably time it used that influence to do something to delight its customers, rather than upset them.

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