Opinion: United we stand, united we fall

Opinion: United we stand, united we fall

In the smartphone age, travel brands must ensure frontline staff are aware they are always ‘on a global stage’, says Steve Dunne, managing director of marketing and PR firm Digital Drums

In public relations (PR) terms, United Airlines ejection of a passenger on a recent flight in Chicago was not so much a car crash moment as a full on motorway pile up.

In its full glory, the incident of a United passenger being dragged from his seat by burly police offices and pulled down the aisle on his back, unconscious, was captured by several fellow passengers on mobile phones and tweeted around the world just moments after it occurred.

The mainstream media news outlets were quick to broadcast the disturbing footage to the wider world and, as is usual in these circumstances, television channels were rapidly interviewing travel industry commentators to discuss the merits of airline customer care, over booking and United’s woeful response to the entire incident.

And there is no doubt about it, United’s response was woeful. It was almost as if the airline went into a catatonic stupor.

It’s initial statements to the media, signed off by United chief executive Oscar Munoz, did not use the word sorry. Indeed, the very sentiment of an apology was conspicuous by its absence.

It was only later in the day, much later, that the airline, famous for its advertising strapline “Flyer Friendly”, seemed to get to grips with the gravity of the situation.

By then nearly one billion dollars had been wiped off the share price of United’s parent company and the brand’s reputation had been well and truly consigned to the rubbish bin.

The whole episode, from the shocking incident aboard the plane to the woeful statements from the airline throughout the day showed how even a big and powerful brand can be brought to its knees in a matter of hours.

Putting the inexcusable actions of the various officials to one side for a moment – the lesson for all travel brands is clear.

In a world where every single person seems to carry a smart phone and is able to capture image and video of a brand’s actions and distribute that footage globally, in an instant, travel brands need to ensure their customer service departments and frontline staff are aware that they are always “on a global stage”.

For senior management the lesson is also crystal clear. In situations like this don’t just listen to your legal team.

Take the advice of your PR people; show humility and empathy, apologise and do so clearly. Otherwise, like United, you will be clobbered in the court of public opinion.

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