If you haven’t heard about the United Airlines incident where an overbooked passenger was violently dragged off the plane then you must’ve been on a nice warm vacation somewhere without social media access (and I wish I were with you!). Both the business world and the general public are in such an uproar that I’ve read no less than 5 posts from different sources on the topic everyday since it happened. As a messaging expert, I was most interested in the brand equity impact of this unfortunate event. So here are the lessons learned according to all the experts:
Reposition These Leggings
Repeat offender United just went through another bad PR incident when the airline didn’t allow two teenagers to board because they were wearing leggings deemed inappropriate for travel.(!) Social media being what it is, the brand was tried, judged and hung even before the CEO could say ‘we’re not sorry’. The lesson? Without having thought of every possible social media backlash and building a contingency response to it, your business will be in as much hot water as United.
Reposition Bloody Pictures
Followed a few weeks later by the now infamous bloodied pictures of the doctor who was dragged off the plane, it’s been really hard for United Airlines to reposition the picture of a customer they’d used violence on during the use of their service. Welcome to the friendly skies indeed. Lesson from the experts? When operational excellence isn’t tied to your marketing, all the most expensive PR in the world can’t save you.
All image experts are in agreement, the issue (that keeps creeping up like a bad case of eczema) clearly needs to be addressed at a structural level of United Airlines. So the question for marketers is: can marketing fix bad operational leadership? Sadly, you can put lipstick on a pig but no, you can’t change the pig. Just like expensive campaigns can’t fix a bad marketing strategy. Bouncing back from this will take more than the too-little, too-late approach of issuing refunds and apologies. It will take some deep leadership and operational change. And for that, you unfortunately have to look somewhere other than the marketing department.