United Airlines Social Sentiment Drops 160%

Marketing News Staff
Marketing News Weekly
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Key Takeaways

What? United Airlines saw backlash on social media after its passenger removal incident.

So what? The airline's reaction to the event exacerbated the negative sentiment.

Now what? PR experts suggest all companies must have a plan in place for crises, apologize, and follow through on promises of change.

April 26, 2017

United's Airlines' social sentiment plumeted nearly 160% in 48 hours

United Airlines was mentioned more than 2.9 million times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in the immediate aftermath of its passenger removal incident, according social listening and analytics firm Brandwatch.

The incident happened on April 9 and went viral via a passenger-recorded video. April 10 accounted for 1.52 million of those mentions, with an additional 1.39 million coming on April 12. Compared to April 9, April 10 saw a 9,968% increase of United Airlanes on social media. 

Brandwatch also quantifies the sentiment of all the United Airlines social mentions. On April 8 and 9, United's social sentiment was 91% positive. After the incident went viral, United registers negative 68.6% and 69.2% sentiment scores on April 10 and 11, respectively.  

Interestingly, Branswatch contrasts the passenger removal fiasco with another United mishap that took place a few days earlier. On March 26, a United passenger tweeted that gate agents were not allowing women wearing leggings to board a flight Denver to Minneapolis. The incident sparked mild controversy throughout social media, even earning its own hashtag, #leggingsgate. 

"For the record, United’s conversation sentiment on the day of #Leggingsgate was 69.2% negative, but a far smaller reaction in terms of volume," says Dinah Alobeid, director of communications at Brandwatch. "The magnitude of the reaction around a passenger getting forcibly removed ... is due to the accompanying video and audio." Without the viral video, she says, the greater public who was not on the flight would not have been able to fully grasp and react to what had happened.

And that's just in the U.S. Reaction to the video was equally terrible in China, which was initially falsely reported to be the place of Dao's ancestry, where the video was viewed more than 330 million times.  

A Timeline of the United Scandal

April 9: O'Hare International Airport police forcibly evict passenger David Dao from United Express Flight 3411 to Louisville to make room for United employees. Video of the incident inundates social media later that day. 

April 10: United CEO Oscar Munoz issues a public statement expressing regret for having to "re-accommodate" customers. In an e-mail to employees that night that was subsequently made public, Munoz criticized the ejected passenger as "disruptive and belligerent."

April 11: Munoz issues a new public statement in the face of further public criticism describing the incident as "truly horrific" and acknowledging that "No one should ever be mistreated this way." He also promised to institute changes to prevent similar incidents from occurring. United also announced it would refund all passengers who were present on Express Flight 3411. 

April 12: Munoz reveals that United will no longer use police to remove passengers from airplanes.

April 13: United changes company policy to ensure airplane employees traveling in passenger seats are book at least 60 minutes prior to departure.

April 14: An attorney for ejected passenger David Dao announces he intends to file a lawsuit against United and the city of Chicago. 

April 18: Munoz states that no one at the company will be fired in response to the incident. 

April 21: United announces that Munoz will not become chairman of the airline as well as CEO, as had been expected prior to the announcement.

April 27: United releases an internal report about the incident that admits the company made several mistakes on the April 9 flight that resulted in them placing internal corporate policy above treating passengers with dignity and respect. The company further announced plans to reduce, but not eliminate, overbooking situations, and to compensate passengers bumped from overbooked flights with up to $10,000 in travel certificates. Finally, the company said gate agents will be empowered to find creative solutions to accommodate bumped passengers, even if it means finding seats on a competing airline or at another airport.

The Lifespan of Bad PR

Brands may spend years building their reputations, but they can go down in seconds, especially with the pace of digital media. Don Martelli, VP of Schneider Associates and an expert in crisis communications, says companies must assume they will experience some level of PR-crisis and should plan for all scenarios accordingly.

“Before social media became a mainstay in terms of how brands communicate with their audiences, companies could be calculated in their response to a crisis," he says. "But today, you just don't have the liberty of time."

Brands facing criticism and scrutiny must evaluate the situation quickly, apologize profusely and commit to internal change. "Apologizing is easy, but delivering on those apologies may take as just as long as it took to build a reputation. Companies have to be prepared to invest in that process," he says.

"United executives need to take a look in the mirror," says Blake Morgan, customer experience futurist and author. "When the executive team speak less of quarterly profits and wall street, employees will follow suit and make better off the cuff decisions when it comes to handling customers."

A 'Black Swan Event' in an Industry with a Customer Experience Tinderbox

Marketing News spoke with AMA CEO Russ Klein about what he thinks the effects may be to the United Airlines brand, and he sees it as creating a shift for the entire industry.

“This event is potentially a black swan event in that it will disrupt the environment for how consumers perceive institutions—public, private companies or brands,” Klein says. “It will represent another step change in what is a very unstable world for building brand loyalty and the importance for organizations to understand the experience design of their product or service.”

Klein says the impact on United will not be a great as what it will mean for customer expectations and customer service in the industry.

He suggests the real impact to United isn’t necessarily in the effects to the company’s market cap, but rather in the negative coverage the brand received across all media. He says United essentially created a massive ad budget damaging its own reputation.

“That’s the staggering part of the story, the real math,” Klein says. “Not just the easy reference to market cap, that to me doesn’t really fully capture the staggering amount of money that United set into motion—unwittingly—against its own brand.”

Klein says he worked on the United Airlines “Fly the friendly skies” account in the 1980s when the brand was transitioning from pleasure travel to business travel or frequent flyers. While the airline industry was once all about traveling in style, the current state of first class, coach and other perks (or lack thereof) illuminates those who have more and those who have less. This clear comparison between customers’ worth may have caused angst and distrust to brew for some time.

“I don’t know of many other customer experiences where it is so conspicuous how a VIP customer gets treated, versus a non-VIP customer,” Klein says. “No one else feels their own Amazon experience juxtaposed against someone who has a Prime membership. Or if I order an Uber black car, the person who is ordering a regular sedan isn’t juxtaposed against that, has no sense of comparativeness going on.

“My belief is that with the way airlines are generally run—this transcends United—the divide and the have/have not mentality has led to accumulated resentment in the flying experience that has been sitting there, latent, like a tinderbox.”


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