Recently, I mused with Cheryl Snapp Conner, PR guru and contributor over at Forbes, about the string of Uber and United Airlines PR disasters. We discussed my article about “Leggings-gate,” (Step Aside Uber—United Airlines Just Made You Look Good) and she reminded me of another UA blunder which I’d nearly forgotten about; we called it…
In 2008, singer/songwriter Dave Carroll was on a flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Omaha, Nebraska, with a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. As he was disembarking, another passenger cried out, “My God! They’re throwing guitars out there!”
Carroll and his band members looked out onto the tarmac: In a state of horror and disbelief, they recognized their own guitars being thrown around like rubbish into a skip.
Shortly thereafter, Carroll discovered that his $3,500 Taylor guitar’s neck had been broken. What followed was a customer service nightmare. Over a period of nine months, Carroll tried to get a claim processed with United. The response was a firm and consistent “no.” They claimed he was out of luck because he’d waited longer than 24 hours to process a claim.
He tried e-mails, phone calls, suggestions that instead of money, United give him $1,200 in flight vouchers. United held firm. They said “No.”
What did this clever singer-songwriter do? He wrote a song and produced a music video. The song was titled “United Breaks Guitars.” He put it up on YouTube and it went viral.
United spent days running around like chickens, trying to “peck up” as much spilt corn as they could. In the end, after 150,000 views, United caved and offered Carroll payment to make the video go away. But it was no longer about the money and he turned them down flat. In fact, he suggested they donate the money to a charity. As Archie Bunker used to say, “whoop-dee-do!”
And then along came “Leggings-gate.” Surely, we thought, now United Airlines would learn their lessons. I had intended to share some of Snapp Conner’s PR lessons for them to consider. But before I could put pen to paper, they rolled out yet another PR disaster—could we call it “dragging-gate?”
A Drag For United Airlines
In what United has referred to as an “involuntary de-boarding situation,” a passenger’s refusal to give up his seat on an overbooked United Airlines flight on Sunday led to a disturbing scene which several passengers recorded on their phones and posted those videos to their social media platforms.
The videos show three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers dragging Dr. David Dao down the aisle by his arms and legs as other passengers shout in protest. Continuing to resist after being removed, he ran back into the airplane, his face bloodied from the encounter.
"It was very traumatic," said passenger Jade Kelley, who did not witness the entire event but said the sound of the screams haunts her. "It was horrible. I had trouble sleeping last night and hearing the video again gives me chills."
What Gives PR Nightmares “Legs”
In all, United’s string of PR missteps seems to be exacerbated by the defensive tone that permeates their responses and in this case, their actions. And it’s a pattern they seem either unable or unwilling to break.
“Guitar-gate took on such energy,” said Snapp Conner. “Anybody can make a mistake. But the corporate position of defensiveness appears to be a culture issue that magnifies the company’s missteps in the eyes of consumers and press.”
As Snapp Conner pointed out, “United PR disaster” is now an auto response option in Google. What does Snapp Conner think the Twitter rep have said in reply during “leggings-gate?”
“Potentially anything could have been better. Noting that it’s been a long standing policy and tradition to encourage pass travelers to dress as representatives of the brand, but perhaps it’s time to take a new look at the current recommendations. A “Thanks for the response. We are listening” or an explanation of the legacy of the policy with a “we will continually re-examine and address” would be better than the official “this is policy” door.”
When it comes to massive public outcry, Snapp Conner suggests that acknowledging the situation and provided something of value in some way, such as “Given the unusual energy around this topic, we invite you to send your thoughts to XXXX@United.com to allow us to properly evaluate this situation and respond,” could have gone a long way to easing the situation.
Overall, some salient takeaways re: how to handle these kinds of PR disasters would be great if United was willing to listen.
“In every PR situation,” says Snapp Conner, “the characteristics of patience, listening, consideration for another point of view and a sincere desire to serve will go very far, even if someone in your employment has made a mistake. Respect their intent and effort to uphold the company policy and also respect the customer’s right to disagree. Look to further understanding and progressive improvement as opposed to who is “wrong or right” in a fight. In other words, a little more EQ and emotional maturity can go a very long ways in PR.”
What Can United Do Now?
“Apologize,” said. Snapp Conner. “But sticking to the guns, even if it doesn’t create an undue loss of customers or share value, will certainly diminish the emotional attachment that customers have to the company brand.”
I totally agree. We could both see the humorous side to “leggings-gate” and even “guitar-gate.” But this latest nightmare is disgusting. At the very least, the thugs who dragged that man off the plane should be fired. And United Airlines should publicly declare and follow through on revising how they operate, how they communicate and how they handle their self-created PR disasters.