United Airlines Passenger Crisis: PR takeaways & social media insights

Karen Freberg, Assistant Professor in Strategic Communications at University of Louisville, Researcher, Consultant, Blogger writes ..

If you have not heard about what happened on Sunday with a passenger on United Airlines, here’s the overview of the case and how it keeps evolving and changing. We already see the tweets, articles, and “5 things the United passenger rebooking case will teach PR professional) marketing and blog posts. 

But in case you have not heard about this case, the video of the treatment of the passenger on the Chicago to Louisville flight is very disturbing and has raised a lot of outrage on and offline. This was the topic of conversation among all of my students in class yesterday and in my various professional networks.

United had a statement from their CEO regarding the situation, which caused a lot more negative reaction and discussion for the brand. In fact, it has been reported today by The Next Web Twitter may have been deleting some of the tweets about United.

This crisis case study has many components to it and as mentioned previously, it keeps evolving not just for the United Airlines brand, but also for the PR field as well.

Let’s first talk about the case. We can evaluate this in a variety of different ways. The trigger event (as we call this in crisis communications) sparked when the video of the passenger on Flight UA 3411, but the way in which United responded with their CEO and the leaked email to United employees did further damage to the brand with the audiences. How you respond and act is extremely important when faced with a crisis situation, like we are seeing here with the reputation damage being viewed for the world to see on social media.

Data can also provide a very interesting perspective on this case as well. This was actually something I had a chance to do in my social media class yesterday. We were covering social media and crisis communications (I know, perfect timing for all of this to happen) and we were using Sysomos to analyze what people were saying related to United among the other two brands (Pepsi and Uber).

I am a big believer of letting the data speak to us and show as what is happening, allowing us to takeaway some insights and brainstorm future strategies and recommendations.

First, let’s see what is currently trending on Twitter related to United. We see the flight number listed second after United, and then we also see the others that were organically created (#NewUnitedAirlinesMottos) which brought forth a lot of memes and other contributions from the internet. Probably not some of the things you want to be trending for your brand.

The buzz graph here discusses what are associated key words that are tied to United. As you can see here, “dragged” and the connections to the specific conversation related to Flight 3411 is present here.

This is also a snapshot of some of the conversations and traffic we are seeing about United Airlines. This is just a sample, but I am sure these metrics and numbers are a lot larger here. As we can see here, the amount that is being discussed on Twitter is huge, followed by news and then Tumblr. What United needs to recognize is where everyone is having these conversations and be able to gather this insight for their future strategies and crisis communication plans.

With that being said, there are also some additional factors here that have been raised that we, as PR professionals, need to be aware of. As an educator who has been part of the PR industry for many years, this case study has certainly given a black eye to the profession for a variety of different reasons.

First, PRWeek (which has been widely known as the trade publication and outlet for the PR field) recently gave Oscar Munoz their Communication of then Year Award at their annual awards banquet. They had a post about the case study on their website, but it had NO mention they had given this award to United’s CEO, or have responded to this on their social media channels.

This was before of course United’s leggings crisis and this one, but has yet to address this question on their own site or even on social media, as presented here:

With PRWeek, it will be interesting to see how they respond to this and practice what they preach in public relations. In addition, it does raise the issue of what are the qualifications and attributes they are looking for in professionals, agencies, and even academic institutions when they are giving out their annual awards? I think there are many questions about this since this was brought to light pretty quickly after the CEO issued his statement.

As you can see here with Sysomos, this is the word cloud that is associated with PRWeek, and it shows how the words “Communicator”, “United,” “Oscar Munoz,” and “PRWeeksUS come up pretty strong.

We are able to see the mentions related to PRWeek as well emerge from social media as well, so the conversation is happening online about PRWeek, but they have yet to respond to these comments and updates.

Not responding to some of these (and if you look – this is just a snapshot of just some of the conversations, but not all of them) can impact PRWeek in this case. I do believe PRWeek have to respond to this inquiry, or otherwise the narrative of their participation in this case study will be controlled by others. This is the time they have to do their own PR efforts to protect their own brand within the industry.

The other PR industry related issue comes from Edelman, who has worked with United with their PR efforts in the past. Edelman is considered to be the largest global PR agency, and this may be the appropriate time to reevaluate their position with the brand. This has to be something we have to discuss with our students when it comes to applying for various internships. What are the code of ethics we want to follow, and do we want to invest in working for an agency that represents clients that act in a certain way?

There appears to be a common thread with all of these three parties: they have all relied on their reputation and position in the industry. United has been a prominent brand in the airline industry while PRWeek has been known as the top trade publication for the PR profession. Lastly, Edelman has acknowledged as a thought leader in the field as well with their work.

However, all three are facing significant reputation issues across the board with this case on different levels and circumstances. As we all know, you may have a great reputation one day, but it only takes one action (or several in the case of United) to damage all of the work you have done.

I am sure we will be talking about this case with United Airlines for years to come in crisis communications.

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