By now, we’ve all seen the shocking footage of a United Airlines customer who was forcibly removed from the aircraft to accommodate air crew on an overbooked flight. While the backlash on social media was swift, United has been slow to say anything that would mitigate this PR disaster.
At a time when many are calling for a boycott of United (read: cutting up their rewards cards), we caught up with Deb Gabor of Sol Marketing, a brand strategy consultancy that works with household names like Dell, Microsoft and NBC Universal, to ask for her read on the situation.
According to Gabor, just pointing to an existing policy isn’t enough to protect you from public backlash. “In a case like this, just because the airline can invoke a policy, that doesn't necessarily mean it should. Everyone has a price—as a frequent business traveler, I'd almost never take the airlines' (increasingly frequent) offers to displace me to an alternate flight in the case of an overbooking," she admits. "But then again, I haven't been offered two free round trip First Class tickets and a bottle of Chandon or something of more enduring value in exchange for my giving up a confirmed seat.”
While it may technically be within the rights of the airline to displace passengers, “in cases like this, someone needs to be the steward of reality,” Gabor says.
Footage of the incident in question, which was filmed by several passengers, gained speed almost instantly for its shocking content. This comes just weeks after United faced another PR kerfuffle when a bystander tweeted about young girls wearing leggings being barred from boarding a flight. “Today’s reality is that every United employee is under a microscope with every move they make. People with mobile phone cameras are everywhere and within seconds, every bad decision can be documented and shared,” says Gabor.
When it comes to changing strategy, Gabor suggests a less rigid, more common-sense approach for the airline. “United shouldn’t be indoctrinating employees with policy as much as they should be empowering them to exercise judgment in the face of difficult questions,” says Gabor.
That same inability to exercise judgement was present in United CEO Oscar Munoz’s Twitter apology following the event. This, Gabor argues, could only cause further hurt to the brand’s image.
“Companies earn trust from their customers by bonding with them emotionally. Sincerity, empathy and authenticity are the conditions that create those bonds. Munoz' apology came across a little bit like a #sorrynotsorry apology with a hint of a 'let's wait and see who's fault this really is' air," she says.
While Tuesday’s official apology letter was more standard, it too could be seen as insincere given its tardiness and the company’s concern over a plummeting stock price (Gabor notes that United closed the day having lost 'more than a quarter of a billion dollars in value' following this incident).
But even after United’s successive flubs, Gabor thinks there’s potential for them to turn their image around. “This incident makes the United brand vulnerable. However, vulnerability is the building block of trust, and United can take this opportunity to create an emotional bond with customers by showing a little vulnerability,” she offers.
Her best advice? “There are hints here from a brand perspective that United employees are not empowered to do ‘whatever it takes’ to delight their customers, even in the most difficult situations.”
For Gabor, this means a major shift is required, as it seems that United staff are used to being taught to place policy above all else. “In this case, it appeared that common sense wasn't all that common among either United's gate staff or the security officers,” she notes—a telling observation about the workings of the United brand.