Handling a social media crisis

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In 2017, there are 4.8bn mobile phone users globally and 2.5bn people on social media. That’s an awful lot of cameras and Facebook walls for a CEO to worry about when something goes wrong. In the inevitable situation that a big business does encounter a scandal, certain things can be done to minimise (or maximise) the damage online and off.

One company that is all too aware of social media’s ability to spread a story faster than wildfire is United Airlines. The calamitous business has once again this week made headlines for mistreating customers – this time falsely accusing a father of inappropriate conduct when he was simply holding his sleeping son’s hand on a flight.

This is the latest in a long line of widely publicised mishaps which have taken place over the last few months, firmly cementing the flight operator’s spot in the PR hall of fail:

The incidents themselves have been widely shared and discussed, as have United Airline’s poorly thought-out responses. There’s a lot businesses can learn from the airline on how not to handle a crisis, especially in an era where it’s more than likely someone will have caught the whole thing on camera and the story will be trending in three continents before the flight’s even touched down.

1. Don't shirk responsibility

.The first thing to do when disaster strikes is to apologise for what went wrong, ideally in an official statement from the CEO. This should be communicated clearly in plain English, issued to media and posted on your own social channels. Hold your hands up, admit what happened, say sorry then explain how this will be prevented or rectified going forward.

After the concerning events involving David Dao, United Airlines took a different approach. The initial statement issued by CEO Oscar Munoz apologised for having to ‘reaccommodate’ customers. His response was criticised for dismissing the seriousness of the situation and tiptoeing around what really happened to Mr Dao. As half the world had already witnessed the passenger being dragged off the plane in the incriminating video evidence doing the rounds online, this was considered an insensitive and insufficient response.

2. Don’t change your response numerous times

Oscar Munoz’s statement seemed to be in a state of flux in the days following the incident with David Dao. A leaked letter to employees showed a contrasting tone to the initial response, praising staff for the way they handled the situation. The internet deemed the letter (which described the passenger as ‘disruptive’ and ‘belligerent’) as ‘victim-blaming’. Contradicting the original response, the CEO defended the employees who forcibly removed the man and made clear he stood behind their actions.

Munoz’s third statement completely reversed this stance, apologising profusely (including to Mr Dao who he refers to as ‘the customer forcibly removed’) and promising to thoroughly review the situation to prevent it happening again. This would have been a great response had it been the first and not warped from two earlier versions.

The lesson here is to strategically plan your statement – don’t throw it together in a panic then change your mind later. Consult with experts who have a proven track record in online reputation management - we can help you with this.

Next tip is to ensure your message is consistent across all channels as well as internally and externally. There could always be a disgruntled employee with loose lips ready to reveal what’s going on behind the scenes.

3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

Amidst these aviation misadventures, United Airlines has put the wheels in motion to salvage its image via a ten-point plan issued in the aftermath of the David Dao incident. The firm has announced it will pay up to £10,000 in compensation (ten times more than the original maximum amount of £1,000) to persuade passengers to get off overbooked planes. An attractive offer but one that may not be wholly realistic.

At the moment, the £10k will be issued as travel certificates which can be redeemed for flights. With official US figures showing the national average of those kicked off planes to be 0.009% this could potentially add up to losses of nearly $130m for United Airlines. And with the business no doubt wanting to avoid anymore PR perils, we have a feeling customers will hold out for the full amount if asked to scoot out of their seat. Again, it seems like this offering may not have been fully thought through.

What should be commended here is United Airlines publicly setting out a plan of actions it will implement to avoid nasty outcomes from overbooking – being seen to put official measures in place to avoid repeat incidents is PR 101. However, judging by the latest slip-up, it seems that proposed staff training may not have taken effect quite yet.

If you’re looking for a digital PR team who can support you through any crisis, click here to get in touch with Equator PR.