The Pentagon dropped 22,600 pounds of punishment on ISIS in Afghanistan. The U.S. dispatched an armada to waters off the Korean Peninsula, and U.S. and North Korean leaders are rattling sabers. Meanwhile, media is entering its second week of outrage and obsession about a man being dragged off an airplane.
This is happening because United Airlines unwittingly produced and starred in its own reality show. The story is compelling for several reasons. Passengers raised smartphones to capture every scream, tug, and drop of blood as Chicago airport police removed the 69-year-old Dr. David Dao from his seat after he refused to be bumped for a United employee.
And the story persists because of several responses by CEO Oscar Munoz that media termed "tone deaf."
The reality behind this marquee story reveals the extent to which social media has altered our national psyche. United Airlines and its image consultants mounted a standard response to an emotional event. Why, then, did this reasoned approach accelerate overnight into brand suicide and evaporate more than a billion dollars in shareholder value?
A decade ago, the video of a screaming, bloody passenger being dragged off a plane would have also dominated television news. Now corporations ranging from PepsiCo to United face a building social media volcano of vitriol.
United was plastered with memes ranging from the obscene to sublimely funny suggested slogans: "board as a doctor, leave as a patient," "we put the hospital in hospitality," to the meme of a sadistic "Walking Dead" Negan strolling a United aisle with his barbed bat, "Lucille."
This volcano erupted because of years of pent-up consumer anger at airlines over smaller seats, cattle car treatment, tasteless food, nickel and diming practices, operational snafus, and general rudeness. United stood out with a reputation for sourpuss ticket agents and surly flight attendants. In 2009, the company became a target when Canadian musician Dave Carroll posted a clever YouTube and iTunes song, "United Breaks Guitars," after the airline did just that. The last time United had a positive reputation was the 1970s when Edward Carlson, a hotelier, who had a gift for connecting with people, was CEO.
In his short CEO tenure, Munoz began addressing United’s culture by improving pay and employee treatment that had put his workforce in such a sour mood. But bad reputation, corporate culture and poor attitude — like savage hangovers — linger on.
To his credit, Munoz made a quick initial response. Our reputation research shows that social media crises either fizzle or ignite within an "8-hour digital day." Hit with an emotionally charged video, organizations have that window to break the virality of vitriol with a response.
Munoz and his advisors made the cardinal mistake of using corporate-speak instead of human-to-human vocabulary. He tweeted: "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers." This shift of blame started an additional social media fire, one that will blaze for weeks and remain in cyberspace’s eternal memory. The corporate euphemism to "re-accommodate" became a national joke, prompting Jimmy Kimmel to say, "Like how we re-accommodated El Chapo out of Mexico."
United and its hapless advisors didn’t understand the terse nature of tweets and other social media that act like granular filters to detach even well-turned phrases, to become toxic and float like free radicals in the social media bloodstream. United may have correctly characterized this passenger as "disruptive and belligerent," but the airline’s account easily played into the notion that it blamed the victim. Munoz’s attempt to buck up morale in an internal message about employees following "established procedure" was sure to be leaked, adding more vanities to the bonfire.
So, what would have been a better approach?
First, as Elton John sings, sorry seems to be the hardest word. It may not be fair, but in a global social media meltdown, CEOs must explicitly apologize, without weasel words, and take immediate and full responsibility. The failure to do so force leaders to later make abject, even groveling, apologies, as Munoz did.
Second, rather than promise to evaluate its own policies and procedures, United could have defused the situation by announcing it was tasking a former transportation secretary or FAA administrator to conduct an independent investigation, with open access to files and people for a full accounting and public report. Note to leaders: Have a high-profile expert on speed dial as a contingency.
Third, beyond an investigation, United Airlines needs to review all policies and procedures that affect customers, and enact new and effective personnel training for customer interaction.
Finally, in an all-out social media crisis, organizations today do not just face just a handful of 800-pound media gorillas. They face tens of thousands of gorillas pouring out of the global jungle of memes, posts, and tweets.
"Truth is what works," said philosopher William James. In today’s digital world, truth can come later. The first order of business in a social media and business crisis is to calm and feed the gorillas.
Richard Torrenzano is chief executive of The Torrenzano Group, a New York strategic communications and high-stakes issues management firm. Mark Davis is a former White House speechwriter. Torrenzano and Davis are co-authors of "Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brands, or Business Against Online Attacks." Read more reports from Torrenzano and Davis — Click Here Now.
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