Student Name: Bradley Jardine
Student Number: N8960542
Word Count: 1273 words
Social media represents an enormous opportunity for brand exposure but has become somewhat of a minefield for marketers. If you execute your strategy carefully, you will be able to publicly communicate with thousands or millions of people, all at once. The power of social media for brands is undoubted, but therein lies its vulnerability; if left unchecked, they can turn into a disaster. United Airline’s social media is an example of how the complexities of social media can result in mismanagement, and a public “fail” for the organisation.
On April 9, 2017 aboard Flight 3411, airline personnel requested four passengers give up their seats to make room for crew members who needed to board (Shields 2017). When Dr David Dao refused the request, he was forcibly dragged off the plane by law enforcement (Shields 2017). This altercation was caught on video (See YouTube video below) by several passengers who subsequently posted them to social media. In this instance, every passenger on that flight was a potential citizen journalist (Sullivan 2013, 228). The videos went “viral” as it spread rapidly across all social media platforms, immediately garnering a lot of attention, with many people expressing anger over the incident. The spreadability was so great because numerous people had previously experienced poor services from United Airlines. The existing resentment by people towards United Airlines, when combined with this appalling incident, compelled many people to spread the video even further. According to Green and Jenkins (2011, 112), spreadability stresses the technical affordance making it easier to circulate certain media content than others through social networks “through the diverse motives that drive people to share media”. The persistence of networked publics also means this content is automatically recorded and archived online (Boyd 2011). Not only was these videos seen by so many, once the videos are on social media they are permanently memorialised on there, and United Airlines has no control or ability to take them down. Furthermore, this incident was not only seen by the public eye but an invisible audience of online presences from all around the world including airline competitors (Boyd 2011). Unfortunately, it was United’s response to control the situation that lead it escalating into a full-blown social media fail.
United responded on their social media accounts with an explanation to try limit the spread of the video but failed to grasp the gravity of the viral video. Furthermore, the company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, issued a public statement to “apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers” which led to even further public backlash (Shield 2017). The impact of this social media ‘fail’ was also far reaching. Following the debacle, United saw its stocks fall rapidly at the height of the incident resulting in a loss of more than $1.4 billion (Shen 2017, para. 2).
But, what was supposedly the height of United’s indifference to the situation was the ill-phrased statements released by the company as well as Munoz himself. Instead of acknowledging the inhumane treatment of Dr Dao of being forcibly dragged off the plane, the statements tried to re-frame the incident using terms like “overbooked” and “passenger re-accommodation” (Shields, 2017). On top of this insensitive response an internal email from Munoz to United Airlines staff was leaked onto social media describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” and said that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this” (Shen 2017, para. 4).
United’s social media responses was heavily criticised for its significant lack of empathy for the badly injured passenger. But apart from the onslaught of angry tweets and comments, the public found other ways to call the airline out for their incompetence. This situation may not have occurred had it not been for social media’s technical affordances.
One notable ruse involved the public turning United’s own social media campaign against them. A prominent feature that emerged due to Web 2.0, is decentralised control (Green and Jenkins 2011). This allows consumers to be heavily involved in dynamic interaction and often hold more power than the producers, or in this case, an organisation. After this incident, users had hijacked the company’s recent #UnitedJourney campaign hashtag to show their disgust and boycott the organisation (Rogers 2017). Ironically, United had launched this hashtag campaign as an attempt to recover from an earlier social media debacle surrounding two teenaged passengers barred from boarding for wearing leggings (Gaydos 2017). The public also started mocking the company using a new hashtag, #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, which started to trend and slogans such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating”. According to Nitins and Burgess (2014, 295), Twitter has its own culture and its users “frequently delight in “gotcha” moments, picking up on PR mistakes and gaffes, and then exploiting them for parody purposes.” This was done using memes which were heavily used to show the public sentiment over the incident. These contents spread like wildfire through the user’s “integrated systems of participatory channels” (Green and Jenkins 2011, 113).
It just shows that from an incident like this, social media has a large influence on the public opinion. The real-time nature of platforms like Twitter means any incident involving major brands reaches the public almost immediately. In the case of the Flight 3411 incident, videos were posted on social media sites almost as it was unfolding. This meant public opinion was being shaped from the moment people started posting their comments. The more followers the user had on social media, the faster the opinions spread and went on to influence others. Aula (2010, 46) mentions that once users develop an opinion about an organisation, “they share it with others and the subjective truth turns into a collective truth”. If United simply engaged with its online consumer base on its social media using a two-way dialogue and kept them informed of the situation with empathy, they could have significantly reduced the negative impact on their brand.
This incident highlights the power of social media, and how one isolated incident can become a global disaster overnight. The days of an organisation getting away with such incidents are gone due to the technological convergence of smart devices and networked digital media platforms (Meikle and Young as quoted in Flew 2014, 5) and any incident has the potential to be seen by many, something companies must be aware of. Being proactive on social media is critical to ensure that a company’s reputation is effectively maintained in the event of an impending public relations disaster. United’s inability to handle the initial onslaught of questions and comments surrounding the incident seemingly indicated that a crisis management plan was not present. To avoid a situation like this in the future, a crisis management plan and house rules should have been created when United Airline’s social media accounts were generated (Cassidy 2016). Public Relations Institute of Australia president, Muir (as quoted in Sakzewski 2017, para. 18) believes, “Good crisis management practice should have immediately acknowledged the airlines failing, and conceded that the failure was breathtakingly bad from a customer-service perspective”. Companies need to establish a stronger connection with their consumers (Jenkins as quoted in Fuchs 2014, 6). United Airline should have acknowledged the issue on their social media channels and engaged in a two-way open symmetric dialogue to find more information about what was occurring and apologise for what was happening instead of trying to deny any responsibility. The first official response from United Airlines’ CEO should have been an unreserved apology to Dr Dao and his wife after he was forcibly removed from his seat and dragged off the plane. Taking this approach would show empathy and minimise the public backlash on their social media channels.
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