Haggie Partners

United Airlines, public enemies and reputational risk mitigation

By Kuba Stawiski @HaggiePartners

Let’s be honest, we’ve all had terrible experiences with airlines and airports. From sneaking in oversized hand luggage onto a budget flight to long delays, queues, strikes, volcanoes (Eyjafjallajökull, anyone?) and long waits at security. They might not cause the everyday headache that commuter trains into London do, but, in a globalised and travelling world, air travel is still a stress factor in our plans.

We, as travellers and consumers of the service, do not, however, expect to be forcibly removed off a plane without having committed any wrongdoing. Of all things that can happen on a plane journey, it’s probably the least of our worries that we will be body slammed by an airport security officer and dragged, bleeding, off a plane. It is, fundamentally, a breach of trust between the consumer and the service provider, which in this case was the airline.

Ignoring the Twitter avalanche, The Daily Mail’s reporting of the story is a fine example of what a brand should not want from its media coverage:

“Airport cop is SUSPENDED over United scandal as new video shows bleeding 69-year-old victim mumbling ‘kill me’ after he was body-slammed and hauled off overbooked flight to make room for airline STAFF”

So screams the latest headline. United, a respected stalwart of the US market, is immediately implicated in “scandal”, while the elderly victim is – and well should be – an object of empathy. The “airline cop” is now public enemy number one.

Overbooking is a regular practice to make sure flights are as profitable as they can be, given that not everyone shows up to the airport. Indeed, in this particular case, the overbooking was not the main problem, but the need for off-duty airline staff to travel on the flight to make up for a shortfall on the other side meant there were no seats free on an overbooked flight. Overbooking almost never causes issues by itself.

But almost never isn’t never. Airlines, in this case United, should be prepared that, in some cases, there will be fallout from the strategy – indeed, reputational risk is an implied consequence of accepting an overbooking policy. A PR response plan for similar eventualities should have been an element of risk mitigation strategies for the business. An example as extreme as this was unlikely, but less drastic scenarios could have provided United with an idea of how to deal with the crisis and maybe, just maybe, reduced the substantial reputational damage to the business.

The video is a clear example of how the smartphone and social media age mean reputational risk mitigation must become a clear priority for corporates, alongside responsive and flexible crisis communication blueprints. It took one person on that plane with a smartphone for this to become a massive viral story, affecting United’s reputation for years to come. If there’s one lesson to the whole event, it’s that, in the world of instantaneous viral communication, an understanding of PR and social media will become ever more central to the risk management strategies for businesses. Otherwise, like United Airlines, real money will be wiped off your value.



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