United Airlines “customer service” fiasco: When company branding gets publicly branded

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eTN reached out to branding experts to get their take on the United Airlines fiasco and how the airline mishandled a customer who refused to get off a flight he had paid to be on when the airline had overbooked its seats and wanted to get four of its own employees on the flight.

It has come to light that in the fine print of an agreement when an airline ticket is purchased, there is a policy that says airlines have the right to ask a passenger to give up their seat. The airlines call this “involuntary bumping,” and it seems that it is a blanket policy that does not require any justification as to the reason why – the airline just has to want a seat or two or four, and that’s reason enough.

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But how the airlines implement this involuntary bumping should at least be within the realm of human decency. Forcibly dragging a customer down the aircraft aisle so violently that it causes bloody injury, and partial disrobing is certainly not an acceptable procedure. Nor is traumatizing all the passengers onboard witnessing the horrible event.

Beyond that, once such an inexcusable incident has occurred, how and when the airline responds is of utmost importance. Here, two branding experts share their thoughts on how what happened to Dr. David Dao on United Flight 3411 from Chicago, Illinois, to Louisville, Kentucky, when he refused to be involuntarily bumped, affects company branding.

Mel Webster with eTN Communications Group “Bloody Good Stuff”  specializes in Brand Architecture, Marketing, Advertising + PR, said:

“This is the PR nightmare every company fears, but when it happens, how any company responds is critical. United has fallen hard, and in the aftermath, management has contributed to further blacken its reputation.

“Intelligent, thoughtful responses by a business in this type of situation is critical. Falling on one’s sword is an honorable response that will help quell backlash in progress. Social media is often an ugly beast that demands to be fed, and United has done a remarkable job providing less than responsible responses that have been grist for the social media mill to chew over and spit United out, wholesale.

“Recovery is possible with careful strategic planning, but to get there, it will require a mea culpa from the very top level of this carrier. Leaks of internal memos from the top down, shaming and blaming the passenger who was removed, is inappropriate in terms of authentic genuine responses, and the external communications have done nothing to quash public outrage. Instead, it has contributed to taking it to a new level.

“I note United has its earnings call coming up next week, which will be interesting given the hundreds of millions of dollars lost market cap in the last two days alone. This is a classic example of a corporation that is penny wise and very pound foolish.

“There are always two sides to every story, but in this instance, the high road is imperative from the 800-pound gorilla who has been captured in full HD glory and in subsequent news leaks, showing us United skies are not really so friendly.

“Perhaps this United fiasco will be taught in marketing and communications classes for decades to come. It should be, as there is a lot to learn from this debacle, with more damage being inflicted on the United brand by United management itself.”

Deb Gabor  is CEO of Sol Marketing, a brand strategy consultancy that has led brand strategy engagements for organizations ranging from international household names like Dell, Microsoft, and NBC Universal, to digital winners like Allrecipes, Cheezburger, HomeAway and RetailMeNot, and dozens of early-stage tech and digital media titans.

Deb said she heard that United’s stock was down a percent and a half, and at one point it went down 4 percent, which equated to almost a billion dollars’ worth of value, so it really speaks to the value of brand in the value of an organization.  She said:

“I see this whole thing as kind of a public relations nightmare.

“I look at this from 3 levels. The first is as an average consumer and pretty frequent flyer, which of course raises questions about what is not only United’s policy but every airline’s policy about displacing passengers from paid flights. I know that policy is policy, and there are agreements with passengers that the airlines can do this, so I’m not questioning thispart, because I know that the rules are there.

“What came into focus for me was the concern for how this particular incident was handled. The forcibly dragging of a man off a flight when clearly he didn’t want to go – the incident went a little bit too far.

“The implication from a brand perspective is that we live in a day and age where we have what I consider citizen journalism, and people with cell and smart phones. That video hit the Internet literally within minutes of the incident happening and went viral, and overnight it had been viewed already 6 million times or more before United ever issued a statement.

“Then the statement that they did issue, which was several hours later the next afternoon, was their CEO just put out a tweet acknowledging that the incident had happened. There was no apology there, there was no concern for humanity, there was no acceptance of accountability or responsibility for the mishandling of an incident. There was no accountability or responsibility for actually causing injury to another human and causing the other people who were on that flight to be emotionally traumatized.  So, that was the first misstep there.

“When an organization does go through a crisis like this – the mishandling of an incident or a bad customer service experience, and this one totally goes over the top – what a company should do is very quickly respond and demonstrate concern for the people involved, and in this case, it wasn’t just that one passenger – it was all of the other passengers who were affected by this.

“The airline should very swiftly accept responsibility and take accountability; describe all the steps they are taking to ensure that everybody is first, safe and okay, and then what are the next steps that they are going to take to remedy the situation and make sure that it never happens again. But most of all they need to sincerely apologize for these things, and they need to do it quickly.

“With United Airlines, I think the big misstep was waiting over 24 hours for any kind of response, and having that response be somewhat insincere and kind of inauthentic, and to not really express any concern or care for the passenger, or for the other passengers. Then a full additional 24 hours went by before an official apology statement came out from the company, and that apology that came out was text book crisis communication. From my experience working with brands over the past 25 or so years, that is exactly what you want a company to do in their actual statement, which it checks all the boxes on all the things that you ought to do when you issue a corporate apology.

“The biggest problem was there were hours and hours of silence between communications, and during that time, the big misstep there was letting this story grow legs and take on a life of its own. When you do that, if you are not swiftly, openly, and transparently communicating what happened, then you let your customers, the media, and everybody else take control of your brand. We saw the evidence of United not controlling the communications around this, and this was exhibited by the fluctuations in the airline’s stock price. Those were my biggest observations.”

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