When the story first broke, it seemed like the usual overly sensational news about another unruly passenger being removed from an aircraft. This does not sway me as this happens if not hundreds, but thousands of times a day around the world. I watched the main video that was all over social media and aside from the chaos that took place in the cabin of that aircraft I was floored to see the explosive way that this story spread not only on traditional media, but the wildfire it created on Facebook, Twitter etc. The comment threads that I reviewed were angry, judgmental, and very opinionated. The whole sphere of social media was out for blood and the mass online condemnation caused United Airlines stock to plummet in value by one billion dollars in the first 24 hours.
United tried in vain to turn the tide, releasing several statements that were not received by the public well, the first was supportive of the employees and their actions and this caused mass anger again towards the airline. The public hatred towards United Airlines did not begin to turn around until the CEO came out and took full blame for the event, announced major procedural promises and changes and offered compensation to every passenger onboard flight 3411, the airline had dug themselves into a hole with no way out and had to make unrealistic promises that it cannot keep. What surprised me most by this point, was that although the poor finesse of how this situation was handled, United Airlines was actually in the right. I am not defending the injuries sustained by the gentleman involved, the fact is, based on federal law and established policy United had every right to take all the steps that they did, and yet because of the prevalence of smart phones and social media, being right or wrong did not matter, the public made up their mind and wanted to punish United for it.
But why did the public turn so negatively toward United? Because of the social media firestorm. People were posting and re-posting articles and videos with highly sensational, angry, opinionated statements. People like to be heard and with social media, everyone has their own soapbox, truth, facts, and objectivity ceased to matter. This issue is not going to go away, since the United 3411 incident there have been several other airline related incidents that have also played out on social media. Recently JetBlue was the subject of this amazing hyped up headline “Family kicked off flight to Vegas for stowing birthday cake in overhead bin”. This could have gone poorly for JetBlue but it didn’t, there are several factors. JetBlue has clearly established policies, procedures and training in place that are good for both the company AND the customer. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes was even interviewed on a morning news programme and was eloquently able to defend his employees and the decisions they made, he backed this up with facts related to the case, the training provided to the employees and the applicable laws and regulations.
In todays world we are literally surrounded by smart phone technology where anyone can film or photograph whatever is happening around them. So, how do we prepare for this new world where social media can take one incident and ruin a person or a companies reputation? We will explore strategies for this in Part II of this topic.