By now, we’re all too familiar with the controversy surrounding United Airlines after a passenger on an overbooked flight was literally dragged off the plane. Of course, like all noteworthy events in the modern world, the incident went viral on social media. It all began when passengers on the plane shared videos of their firsthand accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Once the Internet got ahold of the news, witnesses gave “interviews” to media outlets through Twitter to describe exactly what had occurred. And so began the online outrage at United’s treatment of the passenger. The situation definitely did not improve when United CEO Oscar Munoz thought it was a good idea to post this response to Twitter:
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United Airlines (@united) April 10, 2017
The message only escalated the backlash, resulting in unique responses from just about everyone on social media. Here’s a look at what’s out there:
The Internet (Rightfully) Shows No Mercy
Unsurprisingly, United’s social profiles are currently serving as a place for critics to air their grievances about the company’s behavior. While some tweets and @replies solely consist of very angry text, others take a more creative route by turning to memes:
— Alt Fly United (@altflyunited) April 10, 2017
Others found United’s slogan, “Fly the friendly skies,” to be especially ironic given the circumstance. As a result, #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos exploded on social media, giving the Twitterverse, in particular, another opportunity to offer its unfiltered thoughts:
#NewUnitedAirlinesMottos U can't beat our prices! But we can sure beat our passengers!
— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) April 11, 2017
Twitter wasn’t the only platform talking about United Airlines. #UnitedAirlinesforcespassengeroffplane was also trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo. Most of its users were buzzing about the role that racism may have played in the event (the injured passenger was of Vietnamese descent). The story was also plastered across the front page of reddit and quickly became a trending topic on Google. On YouTube, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel uploaded a portion of his show in which he criticized United Airlines. Even though it’s been live for less than 24 hours, the video already has over 2.5 million views.
Competitors Make The Most Of United’s PR Disaster
Even other airlines have taken a jab at United on social media. Emirates released a commercial on Twitter that called out United’s previous comments against its airline. The ad ends with the statement “Fly the friendly skies…THIS TIME FOR REAL”, a direct criticism of United’s now-infamous slogan.
Fly the friendly skies with a real airline. pic.twitter.com/wE5C5n6Lvn
— Emirates airline (@emirates) April 11, 2017
Royal Jordanian also tweeted out a tongue-in-cheek “anti-smoking” message to its customers, reminding them that on its airline, “dragging is strictly prohibited”.
— Royal Jordanian (@RoyalJordanian) April 10, 2017
What Should We Take Away From All Of This?
United is definitely suffering for its misdeeds and its failure to control them on social media. Public perception of the company has faltered, and its stocks reflect that reality very clearly. So how can you prevent something like this from happening to your company? First and foremost, treat your customers with respect (yes, that’s pretty obvious). Beyond that, your brand must recognize that social media allows everything, good or bad, to escalate globally in the blink of an eye.
Former airline executive Mike Carrivick advises companies to educate themselves about social media and how it has a very tangible effect on the success of their business. The best way to do this is by preparing a strategy in case of a crisis. Basic staff training can help you keep control of your brand’s voice and reputation in the oversaturated social media world. However, planning ahead is good for more than just damage control. If positive social media attention comes your way, make sure you are prepared to take advantage of it. Boosting your brand on social can do wonders, especially since you never know if and when the next PR storm will hit you.