The United Airlines PR department has been extremely busy. All of us watched in horror as the police dragged a United passenger from a flight. The age of social media requires delicacy, professionalism, and, sometimes, rapid response. Companies and organisations must be on top of their game, including those of us in the non-profit sector. This United Airlines situation was not handled well by any stretch of the imagination.
None of us know all of the facts about this circumstance or fully understand the way US airlines overbook flights to try to gamble on revenue. Nonetheless, the manner in which this story went viral, including the subsequent handling of the situation, provides lessons for non-profit organisations to learn, including:
- Twitter and Facebook are not just used for positive and social reasons.
- Every company and non-profit needs to be prepared to respond to customer complaints/issues 24/7.
- The joke emojis on social media continue more than a week after the incident.
- This story likely went viral before the plane even left the ground.
- eMail is never private and confidential.
- eMail may be forwarded externally, as the United CEO found his internal eMail to staff forwarded to the media following this incident.
- Blaming the customer is never a good idea.
- Someone even investigated the passenger’s past and surfaced unrelated information. This information was released to the media. The focus of the story became about the man’s past rather than about the incident or the situation, which caused the problem in the first place.
In the end, the way United Airlines handled this situation caused them more harm financially than it would have cost the airline to hire two pilots to fly the passenger and his wife privately to their destination. The financial impact of this story goes well beyond the 100+ passengers on the flight. On top of the reputational problems United Airlines now faces, the airline will likely face a lawsuit and ongoing/further financial ramifications.