They say history repeats itself — if you wait long enough.
The year was 2008. A passenger on United Airlines, Canadian musician Dave Carroll, was sitting in Chicago awaiting takeoff when he heard a commotion. Outside the window, baggage handlers were throwing guitar cases haphazardly before loading them into the hold.
This alarmed him, as they were his guitars. He called for assistance, but flight attendants told him there was nothing they could do, and to bring it up when they land.
Upon landing, he found one guitar was broken and told to file a claim for compensation. Carroll attempted to negotiate with the airline for nine months, hitting dead end after dead end. United was unapologetic and unsympathetic.
In early 2009, he wrote the song, “United Breaks Guitars.” This became a viral video, spawning two sequels and spurring United to update its customer service training and its social media outreach policy. While they eventually compensated him $3,000 for the guitars, the PR damage had already been done.
They seemed to have learned from this.
In 2013, United was again in the news — this time for their excellent customer service.
Passenger Kerry Drake was on his way to Lubbock, Texas from San Francisco when he found his flight in Houston would be delayed. He had a 40-minute connection to the last flight of the day.
When he heard of the delay, he broke down in tears.
When flight attendants saw him crying, they brought him napkins. They asked him what was wrong only to find that his mother was on her deathbed and would likely die that night. If he didn’t make it to Texas, he’d never see her again.
The crew radioed ahead to his next flight to keep it grounded until they landed, delaying it so he could make his connection. This delay cost the airline thousands of dollars and put the airline’s on-time departure record at risk — but they felt it was the right thing to do.
He made it to the hospital that evening to say goodbye, and she passed away at 4 a.m.
Fast forward four years to 2017, and the focus is once again on United. First, an incident where the airline denied boarding to three passengers over their inappropriate dress. This could have been handled better by the gate agent before it took to the internet, but their explanations were curt and misleading. By allowing the court of public opinion to go unchecked before resolving the situation, the tide quickly turned against them.
Second, a situation involving an involuntary denied boarding (IDB) spiraled out of hand when gruesome footage of a passenger being beaten and bloodied reached the internet.
From all reports, United did not clearly explain the IDB rules to the passengers on the aircraft (and in my time as an airline employee, I cannot recall anyone doing so). In the aftermath, United’s Social Media team offered the contract of carriage as proof of their permission to remove a passenger, however it took multiple tries to extract an apology from the CEO. In the time it took him to do so, their stock plummeted $1.4B USD.
This begs the question – is there something fundamentally wrong with United Airlines culture, or has this all merely been a communication problem?
When you look closely at the incidents, Mr. Carroll’s guitars were broken by employees who clearly showed a lack of care. A few years later, the United employees went above and beyond to show how much they care. The more recent incidents with United employees speak more to poor communication – the physical violence was not performed by a United employee, so it is possible that miscommunication allowed it to happen.
The thing about history is, those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it. So, what can we learn from United Airlines’ PR woes that can help us avoid their fate?
Silence on the internet just begs for someone else to fill it. Get as far ahead of things as you can by acknowledging that you’re at least aware of whatever it is that people are chattering about — even if you have no information yet. This will help to stem the tide of the “@company – did you know that this is going on?” messages.
Wherever people are the most actively conversing about you, that’s where you need to be responding. If you’re trending on Twitter, you need to respond there. If people are on your Facebook page, answer them with Facebook Live. Be prepared for outbreaks on Reddit, Snapchat, Pinterest, even 4chan – they can and do happen.
It should go without saying that if you’ve messed up in the public eye, you should ask for forgiveness. If you’re not sincere, people will see through the apology, and it will be even worse for you in the long run.
Some things are simply better handled out of the court of public opinion. Getting things offline as quickly as possible can help you remove mob mentality and allow you to reasonably settle disputes.
After the PR dies down, document everything and perform a post mortem. Analyze the behavior to see what happened, what you did well, what you could have done better, and what you should not have done at all.
In the case of United, it’s obvious that they have some work to do to in both their social media response protocol and their overall communication team. However, with a culture that empowered their employees to work together in Kerry Drake’s case, I believe they’ll be able to find a way to come back from this.
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