Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably already heard about United Airlines making recent headlines. Following their earlier PR blunders like United Breaks Guitars along with blowback from the leggings incident (their agents barred young girls in leggings from boarding a flight in Denver), they’ve done it again.
Except this time, it’s much more serious.
From misused vocabulary (what does ‘volunteer’ mean, again?) to physical assault, things aren’t looking good. How will United Airlines recover from this social media disaster? Well, let’s see how some other leading brands have handled some major PR fiascoes:
If you’ve ever stepped foot in a Whole Foods, you’ve probably heard of Odwalla juices. I used to grab one whenever I didn’t have time for a full meal back in college. It was more than just a juice. Some of their products were almost substantial meal replacements. And cost about as much as one, too. They just screamed healthy – especially the green ones. Or they did. Until they started to scream E. coli.
When health officials confirmed the link between E. coli contamination and Odwalla’s apple juices, that was only the beginning. When the consumption of their juices caused over 60 people to get sick and even led to the death of a child, it was unclear how they were going to recover.
Faced with more than 20 lawsuits, their CEO reacted quickly and immediately implemented a nationwide recall of all Odwalla beverages containing apple and carrot juices. He also publicly accepted full responsibility for all of the above-mentioned incidents, offering to pay for all medical costs related to the E. coli outbreak.
Opting for total transparency, Odwalla held daily press briefings to ensure the public was kept well-informed of how they were handling the situation. This included full-page newspaper ads and a website dedicated to coverage of the latest developments.
After pleading guilty to criminal charges regarding the outbreak, they were penalized with a $1.5 million fine by the FDA. When news finally began to break up about their toxic juices, they had already lost a third of their market value.
How were they going to recover from this? By handling their blunder with total transparency. And they did the same when repairing relations. They fixed the contamination issue and improved their system for quality control and safety, making sure the public was well-informed about these modifications. By focusing on their customer relations and rebuilding trust for their name, they were able to re-launch their apple juice just 2 months later. Coca Cola later bought the brand for $186 million.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 had been one of my top choices when I was in the market for a new smartphone. I even went to test it out in the store and was thisclose to buying when all of a sudden, smoke started coming out of the charger port and it just exploded! The experience left me scarred: my left earlobe now looks like a chew toy and the doctor had to surgically remove about 12 shards of glass from my cheek.
But that was the fear after reports of exploding Samsung phones began to surface. Public opinion had become shrouded in distrust. Especially because of the way the situation had been handled. Rather than immediately own up to the mistake, Samsung opted to downplay the extent of its reach.
They could have – and probably should have – showed concern for the safety of their customers by reaching out to them about the malfunction ASAP. However, contrary to exercising total transparency about the severity of the events, they announced the malfunction from an inconspicuous tab on their website. Blowback from these incidents quickly began to escalate. Samsung eventually followed up with consumer alerts on all their social media channels a few days later, but by then, the whispers in the wind had become thunder in the storm.
What can we learn from how these major brands handled PR disasters?
- Transparency is key. If a mistake was made, ‘fess up. Don’t try to sweep it under the carpet. Firstly, you might not get all the pieces. Secondly, if your consumers suspect that you’re not telling them the whole story, they’ll lose trust in your brand. Take steps to ensure that your customers know you’re doing something about the problem
- Make amends. In any given situation, there’s considerable gray area. Often, it’s not just one person or business that is 100% at fault. It’s highly unlikely that Odwalla went around dropping petri dishes full of E. coli into their production line, or that Samsung programed their phones to explode upon connection to charging cables. But negligence can be just as dangerous as premeditation, especially with social media. The public demands closure.
- Time is of the essence! Everybody makes mistakes. How you deal with them in the aftermath – and how fast you do it – is what matters most in a PR crisis.
What about United?
The situation may not have been initially handled in a very timely, apologetic, or transparent manner, but social media and a viral video soon made this inevitable.
United’s CEO recently (several days later) acknowledged the role that their staff played in the incident, offering monetary reparations to the passengers on the flight. This should help soften the blow, but transparency demands more. Questions that are now plaguing passengers before booking a flight on United:
If United overbooks my flight, will I be ‘volunteered’ off the plane? Can I count on United to get me to my destination on time?
And these are just the milder concerns from people who haven’t given much thought to the doctor’s perspective in the debacle.
When your reputation is at stake and the world wide web is your stage, social media can make or break you.
That’s why social listening is indispensable when it comes to saving your brand reputation.
Why are consumers angry? Because they think the situation isn’t being handled, and that this will happen again. By quickly responding to conversations where people are talking about the incident (or incidents, as loose scorpions appear to be yet another concern for United passengers), your PR team can begin to rebuild trust. It may take days, weeks, months, or even years, but rest assured, in the event of a PR crisis, your consumers are talking. And your brand reputation demands that you listen to them.
Have you ever flown with United? Do you plan to book a flight with them soon? Share your stories about flying (or not flying) with United in the comments section, below.