Monday, March 27, 2017

Are there parachutes on United Airlines flights?

This week, United Airlines proved that it has learned nothing about social media in nine years.

By now, you may have seen the tale of United's removing two teenage girls from a flight for wearing leggings. United explained that its policy for users of employee-provided travel passes came with a dress code. Leggings and spandex are forbidden.

This episode, as silly as it sounds, triggered a Twitter onslaught of criticism for the airline. It amused me, at first, because what passes for travel attire on most U.S. air carriers ranges from business suits to rumpled pajamas to cosplay outfits.

But then, as the United story tumbled across Twitter, involving celebrities including Chrissy Teigen, Patricia Arquette, and even octogenarian William Shatner (at left, in tights from his '60s Star Trek era), I remembered: United's been down this road of embarrassment before.

In 2008, Canadian musician Dave Carroll created a mini-sensation when the airline's baggage crew smashed his checked Taylor guitar. His music video response earned more than 16 million YouTube views. United apologized -- having become a laughing stock.


Has United learned nothing in nine years? Instead of hiding behind policy, denial, and protocol, the company's communication pros allowed the leggings story to percolate and gain international attention.

So, as a reminder, here are some basic PR tips for an organization facing a barrage of criticism on social media:

  • Any incident – even a minor one – can go viral and global
  • If you don’t tell your story, the internet will do it for you
  • Control the message to ensure your reputation isn’t at risk
  • Don’t respond with policy blather. Instead, good-natured humor may help de-fuse tension over an issue (depending on the situation)
  • Get it resolved ASAP

Me? I'm booking my next flight on Southwest.