United Airlines Brand Turmoil – No Time for “Spin”; Learn from Savvy Utility Marketers

United Airlines is the latest brand to find itself pummeled by branding disasters. In their most recent incident they chose to address the situation using marketing “spin” and policy jargon at a time demanding an even greater-than-usual helping of authenticity, customer-first focus and absolute candor.

On the heels of refusing to let two teenagers wearing leggings board a flight just two weeks ago, United finds itself taking more brand body-blows after the 30-second video of a man being forcibly removed from a Chicago flight has raced across social media.

Videos show a man screaming as security officers pull him from his seat and drag him  down the aisle as other passengers yell in protest. One video of the incident on Facebook, for instance, has been viewed over 1 million times.

The incident highlights the tough place brands occupy in our age of social media: Up-close examination by customers watching for every misstep can turn an otherwise invaluable tool for connecting with customers, social media, into a weapon against the brand – rightfully so in United’s case. The result, poor decisions like United’s can take on a life of their own and snowball within hours – if not minutes.

In a recent Digiday article Andrew Gilman, chief executive of the crisis communications firm CommCore Consulting Group, said “The leggings incident was embarrassing and may have been exacerbated by internet trolls, but this is an unmitigated disaster.”

Fueling the disaster was United’s response; which was exactly the “spin” the situation didn’t need. On Monday CEO Oscar Munoz tweeted this:

Having worked through both private and public (utilities) sector marketing crisis situations, it’s surprising to me that United’s marketing and/or PR teams advised Mr. Munoz to use marketing-speak and policy jargon (aka “spin’) in this situation. This is exactly the wrong time for it. To be specific, phrases like “re-accomodate” highlights that his advisors have a blindspot regarding the speed at which social media moves in supplying the public with the details of exactly what has happened as well as not having a grasp on what people fundamentally need to hear from brand stewards at times like these. Even more evident is how United employees have been lead to put policy ahead of customers. In a truly customer-first company culture this situation would have likely not happened at all. Employees at all levels would know that making the right decision for the customer was paramount; not blindly following company policy to the detriment of customers.

Ironically, considering they often have much smaller teams and budgets, it’s times like this I’m reminded of how our public sector marketing brothers and sisters, specifically utilities (e.g. electricity and gas), give us sage examples of how to respond in these situations. Utility marketers often have to deal with high-profile brand crisis situations. From storms, to outages, to large scale disasters – many utility marketers have built their marketing muscle for adroitly handling what could be brand, or worse, disasters. What they do well… call it like it is and tell customers how they, the utility, are going to fix it. This is one of the key lessons for United. Utility marketers realize that these situations are not times to spin a message, use policy jargon or other vagaries – these are times to truly put customers first, own the situation and be honest about how they’re going to make it right for customers.

Situations like United’s are tough, but a company with a truly customer-first culture would rarely get itself into this predicament and, if it did, it would intuitively know to handle it with a big helping of authenticity, customer-first focus and absolute candor.

‘Nuff said.

Jason Turner

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