PR lessons from United’s biggest blunder

Apr 14, 2017
PR lessons from United’s biggest blunder

Another day, another major brand in the midst of a PR crisis.

United is the latest company to find itself at the center of a reputation management nightmare after a video of its staff forcibly removing a passenger went viral. It’s the second PR crisis for United, after it refused to let two teenagers wearing leggings board a flight two weeks ago.

For a brand that once invited its passengers to “fly the friendly skies”, United is now facing monumental public backlash, thanks in part to a series of PR missteps in the wake of the video being shared online.  

What can branding professionals learn from United’s mistakes? That timing and messaging are equally important in helping maintain customer trust in any crisis.

1. Compassion and empathy  

United’s statement immediately following the event failed to show any remorse or compassion towards the individual at the center of the incident and stopped well short of taking responsibility for the events, instead justifying its actions and reinforcing its policy.

It ignored United’s number one priority, its customers, and suggested the brand severely underestimated the public reaction and sentiment to the video.

The brand’s first sign of empathy towards its customers came hours later when its CEO released a second statement apologizing and promising a review into the incident. This type of statement was textbook crisis management – apologize, accept responsibility and announce a review into the incident.

Where United went wrong was its delay.

An entire day elapsed before this second statement was released, and the messaging in the statement was contradictory from the original statement. The hours between the two statements showed a lack of genuine concern toward its customers. The brand’s reaction suggested United was not acting out of empathy and authenticity at all, but simply reacting to the increasing negative rumblings online and on social media.

2. Combining timing with delicate messaging

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, real-time responsiveness and speed is vital in any crisis management situation, especially one at which a brand’s customers are at the core.

This incident serves as a harsh lesson for United, and an example to other companies, that the message is equally as important as the timing. United’s disjointed approach and early mistakes could have been the difference between a minor reputation management issue and a colossal brand crisis.

When incidents like these happen and when proper steps aren’t taken, a domino effect ensues – creating lasting impact on a brand’s reputation and bottom line.

3. “The customer is always right”

United claimed that it took all the appropriate procedures, but at the expense of the customer.

In the short term, United needs to focus on retaining the portion of their customer base they still have by reinforcing its long-standing values that differentiates it from the competition.

A huge fraction of their pre-existing relationships are either completely broken or in a fragile state. By taking one step back, looking at the situation from an aerial view, United could have avoided this situation by, at the very least, raising their monetary offer for a rescheduled seat.

By considering upping its rewards for customers, it reminds them of their past positive relationship with the brand, it’s ethos, and the promise of a better future.

4. Repairing broken trust

The reaction online and on social media was swift and indicates that United has already lost a group of customers with both individuals and companies threatening to boycott the airline.

For United, the focus now needs to shift away from immediate crisis response to big picture strategy, as the brand looks to repair its image and maintain customer loyalty.

In the longer term, United needs to look to rebuild its brand and repair the broken relationships with its former customers and the wider community. This requires a personalized approach built on time and careful planning. The video and United’s lackluster response won’t be forgotten quickly and the challenge for United will be to slowly reconstruct its brand by reinforcing a commitment to putting its customers first and foremost.

With the next major PR crisis around the corner, the lesson here, again, for brands is to act quickly, definitively and most importantly to put the customer first.

Claire Nance is a director at North 6th Agency (N6A).

Photo via Pixabay

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