How United Airlines Could Have Saved Their B*** on Social

United Airlines reportedly lost $1.3 billion in market value since the video of a passenger being dragged out of the plane went viral on social media. The situation quickly blew up with an astonishing lack of social media skills from United. Today, they deactivated Twitter all-together.

Besides the obvious fact that asking a boarded passenger to leave the plane because of overbooking is not a smart thing to do, much of the outrage comes from how United is handling the consequences.

As a Brand and Social Media Strategist, watching this go down is just beyond me. As a frequent traveler (and happy JetBlue customer — especially after this) I completely understand why this blew up the way it did.

“United could have fixed this.” — Christina Baldassarre, Brand Strategist & Managing Partner at Zebra Advertisement

Losing $1.3 billion because of a social media scandal can be avoided. Would this video have done damage in each case? Yes. Did they significantly reduced the financial damage and public shaming by rocking social? No.

Large brands typically have Brand Strategists on a retainer for reputation recovery. That means you have an entire team of professionals jump in to contain, reduce, and address the damage immediately. I didn’t see anyone jump at all except the people who watched the video.

Contain, reduce, address. Immediately. In that order.

What did United do?

  1. Delete all tweets from April 8.

2. Post two tweets with blurry text of the CEO’s apology.

3. Deactivate the Twitter handle all-together.

3 Things United Should Have Done

When facing a PR crisis like this, it’s not just important to apologize to everyone, including the public instantly but also where you place that apology. It went viral on social, so address it on social. It’s basic Reputation Recovery 101. Address it where it happens.

Nowhere does it say go hide and pretend you didn’t tweet.

Furthermore, United should have shared the video with an official statement instantly. Something bad happened, take ownership! Refunding passengers too late, not addressing the implied racial discrimination properly (the passenger was Asian,) vanishing from social is not the way to go. You want magazines to use your branded tweets and Facebook posts in their articles as a reference, not the one of your haters.

Last but not least, United should have responded to each upset customer and each member of the public that talked about the story. This is not as impossible as it sounds. It’s actually really common for large brands.

United should have had two things in place:

  1. Sentiment Tracking
  2. Engagement Management System

Sentiment Tracking is something countless affordable tools provide to keep track of how people feel about your brand online. Those tools also alert you and track each conversation. So United may have had a list of people to reach out to in real-time.

That leads me to Engagement Management. If you have a list of people who engage with your brand and you know where they did it and how to reach them, engage with them!

Conclusion

The situation should have been handled differently to begin with. Given that it wasn’t, hiding was the worst choice they could have made. Contain, reduce, and address is still the way to go. While it won’t undo the damage, it’s time to start managing this rather than reacting to what’s happening.

Did PRWeek Get It Wrong?

United CEO Oscar Muñoz was just named “Communicator of the Year” by PRWeek. Now his social media team publicly embarrassed his way of communicating on social. Additionally, communication was one of the main critique points in this PR crisis. While he hasn’t considered resigning according to Bloomberg, the irony of being honored with this title in such proximity to a badly handled PR crisis will be haunting him for some time. Again, having the topic of a resignation come up could have been prevented to begin with.

Social Media Management is a term that exists because social media can actually be managed. United should get started on this. Like, now!