United Shows Us What Not to Do

There are so many lessons to be learned from the United Airlines doctor-tossing incident that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Suffice it to say, United couldn’t have handled the aftermath of the now-famous video much worse than they did.

But let’s start at the top. Inevitably, United’s CEO had to comment. But it sure appears like he shot from the hip, first by supporting the action of removing the uncooperative passenger, and then evolving in his commentary into eventual revulsion at what happened.

While it may not be the case, that changing attitude makes it look like he brushed off the incident initially, then conveniently became more “caring” only in reaction to the storm of criticism that hit United in the days following the incident.

That just shows us that in today’s Twitter-centric world, if something bad happens at your company, you’re going to have to work fast to keep your tweeters from potentially making it worse. It is critical that your company and its people be speaking with one voice. Hopefully, that voice is a tactful and diplomatic one, so that anything you say causes an absolute minimum of alienation among customers and the public.

The problem for United is that while they may be legally able to remove people from their planes or deny them seats in overbooked situations, that isn’t much consolation when it is handled so poorly.

The airline should have offered greater financial incentives to passengers to take a later flight, rather than stopping at a mid-level amount and then getting physical. They should have recognized that having three officers drag a passenger out of the plane, bloodying him in the process, couldn’t possibly look good. Especially when pretty much everyone on the plane can shoot videos with their phones.

There are some customer service issues involved here as well as “image” issues, and it’s pretty clear United fell short on every count. It would be worthwhile for all marketers to review their companies’ policies as it relates to dealing with customers and look for ways to help improve any practices that could end up looking terrible on a viral video.