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Pepsi must be relieved. After the backlash it received for its ill-judged Kendall Jenner ‘resistance’ ad, things must have been looking pretty grim. The public, media and industry professionals had all lambasted the commercial and, frankly, its reputation was taking a beating. What to do next? Sit tight and wait for United Airlines to commit a PR gaffe was the not entirely surprising answer. Because United has form when it comes to committing cringe-worthy PR blunders.

First there was ‘Guitar-gate’, after passenger Dave Carroll had his Taylor guitar destroyed by the airline’s baggage handlers during a flight in 2008. United repeatedly declined to reimburse him for the damage, so he wrote a song decrying their customer service and their brand. It was funny and clever. And it cost United dear. Within four days of the song going online, United Airlines’ stock price had plunged by 10%, costing shareholders $180 million – which interestingly would have bought Carroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.

And then in March this year there was ‘Leggings-gate’, after United refused to allow two teenage girls to board their flight because they were wearing leggings. The airline defended its action at the time by saying the girls were flying on passes that required them to abide by a dress code in return for free or discounted travel for family members of staff. But it seems social media users were having none of it, with the company roundly lambasted for a policy that many perceived as ‘sexist’ and in danger of ‘sexualising young girls’.

By now, United’s famous advertising slogan, ‘Fly the Friendly Skies’ was in danger of looking like a joke, with people starting to question just who and what is actually welcome to fly on their planes.

This week, we had an answer of sorts. Not doctors. Well, not one doctor anyway. It follows an incident, captured on video, which shows a paying passenger being dragged bloodied and screaming off a flight, after he refused to leave following an overbooking fiasco which saw him picked at random to be ‘deplaned’. The passenger, a doctor called David Dao, allegedly suffered concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth as he was hauled off. The footage was shocking, but it’s United’s poor response to the incident that will stick in the memory of many people.

Because poor Dave Carroll’s guitar isn’t the only thing that United has broken; with the handling of this latest incident, they’ve seemingly gone and smashed almost every PR rule going. And it’s already costing them dear. United’s share price nosedived by as much as 4.4% last week, wiping $1bn off its market value at one stage. As I write this, a number of online petitions calling for United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, to step down have had well over 100,000 signatures combined. The backlash from the incident resonated around the world, with social media users in the United States, China and Vietnam calling for boycotts of the No. 3 U.S. carrier by passenger traffic and an end to the practice of overbooking flights. United Airlines was mentioned nearly 3m times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in the first 48 hours after news of the incident broke, according to Brandwatch, a social media analytics company.

So what did they do so wrong? Well, people will generally forgive an accident but they will not forgive a poor response. And United’s was about as poor as they come. United failed to recognise just how enraged the public were by this incident; it became very apparent that there was a clear disconnect between the airline and the public mood.

For nearly 24 hours following the incident, the carrier seemed unaware of the fact that it had any responsibility for what had happened, referring questions to law enforcement — probably on the advice of its lawyers.

Two days later, Oscar Munoz came forward with a response that has been roundly criticised, apologising only for ‘re-accommodating’ passengers – no mention of one being dragged down the aisle kicking and screaming. The airline came across as robotic, inhuman and uncaring. To make matters worse, later that evening, Munoz, in an internal statement to employees, appeared to put at least part of the blame on the passenger, saying Mr Dao had ‘defied’ security officers and had become ‘disruptive and belligerent’.

It was a whole three days later before United grasped the situation and apologised, with Munoz appearing on Good Morning America to say ‘this will never happen again’. But by then the damage was well and truly done. His reputation was significantly damaged, as was the reputation of his airline.

Is it recoverable? Yes, though the full extent of the damage to United’s brand and reputation remains to be seen. Many airline analysts doubt that disgruntled passengers will put their brand loyalty ahead of their wallets and boycott United. This said, people have long memories and at a time when airlines are often increasingly competitive on price, passengers may well start to place more emphasis on other differentiating factors such as the in-flight customer experience. On the above evidence, this doesn’t bode well for United and I predict some turbulent times ahead.


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