Managing social media reputation is a question that comes up a lot whenever I speak to new clients or the public. And it’s a good question to ask. Social media is incredibly powerful, as witnessed by the recent and well-deserved beating United Airlines has taken at the hands of a general public armed with nothing more than the facts and the ability to broadcast them to each other without much mediation. This refers to the video of a customer, selected at random, being dragged off a United flight from Chicago to St. Louis in order to seat United crew who wanted onto that same, overbooked, flight. As of this moment that video has been shared nearly 60,000 times just on Facebook alone and seen by 2 million people.
The first distinction I make any time someone starts talking about “Social Media Reputation” is that there’s a marketing side of this and a crisis management side. A smart company that has been doing good social media marketing will have a better reservoir of goodwill built up, but that’s not going to save you when you send strong-arm goons onto your plane to drag a customer off who has done nothing more than board the plane and sit in the seat he was assigned. That’s the crisis management side. No amount of clever social media tricks are really going to save you there. That’s just POISON for a company like United. United punched themselves squarely in their own face.
What’s sad and illustrative of a corporate breakdown is that United still appears to think they can fight this and win by trying to spin social media. Their CEO decided to double down on the insensitivity by using euphemism to try to soft pedal what his employees had done. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers…” First of all, re-accommodate isn’t even a real word. But more to the point, your airline just assaulted a customer and, by randomly dragging a paying customer off a plane for “refusing to leave voluntarily.” Apparently “refusing to volunteer” is also part of the new United customer service jargon alongside “re-accomodate.” The overt lesson to customers is that this could be you any time you fly United.
So what should United have done? Apparently they needed to get some flight crews from O’Hare to St. Louis. There are no doubt dozens of flights per day that they could have found seats on. Or, more to the point, they could have driven the crews from Chicago to St. Louis (about 5 hours) or even chartered a private plane. But private planes are EXPENSIVE, you say? Yes, they are, but no where near as expensive as having hundreds and possibly thousands of customers deciding that, you know what, I’m just not ever flying United again. They could have even walked up and down the aisle offering thousands of dollars in cash until someone got off the plane. Anything except what they did.
None of this comes down to being particularly clever about social media. Simply being aware that if you and your company continue to behave like insensitive, violent morons, social media is going to shove it right back in your face times 1,000. The best social media advice in the world is to watch your REAL LIFE behavior so it doesn’t blow up on you.
Edited: This Washington Post article goes into even more critical details. Apparently the entire plane ended up having to be cleared and the flight was delayed by 3 hours. Again, what horrible customer service for everyone who was on board and what a travesty and violation of the dignity and rights of the man who was dragged off.
UPDATED: United CEO finally gets around to saying the right things. Let’s see if they actually do the right things, which is much more important to crisis management than whatever he says.