Turbulence in the skies for United Airlines: Crisis PR takes off

by Melissa Craib

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

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From #LeggingsGate to the manhandling of a passenger off a plane –this airline has flown into the heart of a social media storm

United Airlines In the Midst of a Crisis PR Storm

SLOGANS are more often than not cheesy brand strap-lines conjured up by a team of creatives – with the intention of being ‘aspirational’.

You know the good ones. Why? Because the brand can be identified from its slogan alone. Take for instance, “Just do it” or “Because You’re Worth It” – two examples that are undoubtedly embedded into our consumer culture.

However if you’ve been reading the news recently you’d struggle to name the airline brand behind “Fly the friendly skies”.

Quite farcically, its ‘owner’ is United Airlines, which resurrected the cheerful message in 2013.

Yet rather than become the embodiment of pleasantness, UA has since veered its nosecone from crisis to crisis.

So we’ve taken the time to offer a ‘highlights’ reel (or should that be ‘lowlights’ reel?) along with a few words of advice to make your business’s journey that bit more comfortable.

They’ve been ‘winging it’ for a while

This isn’t the first time the airline has been in hot water.

In 2009 United featured in a viral video, not for being the perfect customer friendly service you’d like, but for breaking guitars. Musician Dave Carroll had to witness baggage handlers ignore the fragile stickers on his pricey axe, resulting in the treasured instrument breaking.

Declining to reimburse the musician, Caroll opted to express the incident the best way he knew how -through song.

Thanks to the explosion of social media a brand crisis such as this can spread faster than the speed of sound, along with a very visible outpouring of scorn courtesy of the mass public.

As a result, the literally named ‘United Breaks Guitars’ quickly went viral and has been viewed over 4 million times and can be purchased on iTunes with an impressive 4.9 star review.

They’re frequent flyers

In more recent times the airline has careered into a double-whammy of self-inflicted undefendable PR nightmares.

With the appointment of new CEO Oscar Munoz it seemed the airline was getting off the ground in good PR practice, and Mr Munoz was even named PR Week’s Communicator of the Year.

However the airline started to make a violent descent in rebuilding its reputation. The quite incredible #leggingsgate manifested itself when two young girls were stopped from travelling due to their attire.

Following the backlash across social media, branding the firm as sexist and antiquated, United unconvincingly defended the decision to stop the teenagers from flying based on the type of ‘ticket’ the two girls had.

So, if leggings are your go to travel outfit then do not worry, the garment is allowed – if you have the right ticket that is.


Crisis PR Media Find out how we used creative means to ensure that when crisis hits your staff can spring into action and know exactly what to do


Forcefully Removed

Now, with the latest fiasco of flight 3411 the airline has made the headlines once again for all the wrong reasons.

The flight it seems, was overbooked. In incidents such as this, they often ask for passengers to disembark voluntarily for some form of compensation.  Surprisingly when no one volunteered the next logical step for the airline was to forcibly remove a passenger. Quite horifically, this action resulted in him being dragged along the aisle while visibly bleeding from the face.

As ever with the modern age, the whole altercation was caught on video and quickly spread across social media.

People have been quite rightly outraged at this most recent debacle and have found the airline’s response wholly unsatisfactory. Numerous tweets to the airline have appeared throughout social media, The Jimmy Kimmel Show even remade an advert for the airline.

United did try to defend itself, firstly by apologising for the ‘overbooking situation’ – and somehow missing the point by a few time-zones.

This would have been the perfect opportunity for the airline to put a well-practiced crisis PR plan into place, with carefully crafted content that shows compassion.

However the next response was from its CEO Oscar Munoz.

So where did he go wrong?

By using clinical terms such as‘re-accommodate’ and the perhaps the slightly understated use of the word ‘upsetting’ didn’t do much in terms or pleasing the incensed public.

Does your business want to work with PR experts that know exactly what to do when Crisis hits?

We love helping other businesses to tell their stories to the world – and a vital part of that is making sure your voices is heard in the right way and by the right people on those occasions when something goes wrong.

We’d be happy to discuss creating a crisis PR plan for your business.

Simply phone us on 0131 561 2244 or fill in the simple form below and we’ll get straight back to you:

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Photo Courtesy of Raimond Spekking.
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