The United Airlines Story: How A PR Disaster Could Have Been Avoided

United Airline PR Disaster

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars you can’t have missed the epic PR disaster which ensued after footage was shared of a United Airlines passenger being forcefully removed from a flight by an aviation law enforcement officer due to an overbooked United Airlines flight. Most people reacted with shock when the disturbing images and video clips went viral and even the Chicago Department of Aviation placed the officer on leave, admitting that his actions were not condoned or acceptable. United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz on the other hand issued the following statement immediately after the event:

Aside from being impersonal and exceptionally formal, his use of the term “re-accommodate” diminishes the impact of the violent force used against a paying costumer who was randomly selected to leave the flight after no volunteers put themselves forward.  Whilst the officer was not an employee of the airline, the situation took place following a United Airlines request to remove the passenger and this CEO statement does not do enough to address the passenger who suffered on board their flight, choosing first to reference the United Airlines team as if they take priority over the customer.  I was asked to appear on The Victoria Derbyshire Show on BBC Two to discuss how United Airlines can survive this PR crisis. You can watch the full interview here (1hr54).

I was also given an opportunity to speak about this in greater depth on Eddie Nestor’s BBC Radio London show (from 0hrs33mins):

Finally, I was invited to discuss the situation on BBC Radio 5Live to discuss the PR fallout (from 2h19min):

The running theme throughout my discussions was that the CEO should have apologised directly to the passenger and held off from making any further comments until all the facts and information were established. Aside from the online memes and the backlash from consumers, media outlets and competitors alike this is a lesson in corporate sensibility and sensitivity. The consumer is king, not only when a business takes money but at every stage of the brand relationship process. The damage to the organisation’s reputation is huge in this case (although it is not the first time they have had negative press), with share values plummeting and social media reactions keeping this story alive. Passengers should be made to feel safe, secure and most of all respected and after this second statement from the United Airlines CEO it would seem that they are grasping this. This statement is more compassionate, more customer focused and has less corporate jargon. Is it too little too late? Only time will tell.

How Pepsi Proved That Not All Publicity Is Good Publicity

April 4th is the anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King‘s assassination as well as the birthday of Dr Maya Angelou, two highly respected African-American leaders and prominent civil rights activists. April 4th is also the day on which Pepsi decided that it would be apt to release an advert featuring Kendall Jenner of the Kardashian empire. It featured many key prompters and clear triggers designed to generate a buzz and cause a stir. It worked but for the wrong reasons – this was more than a buzz this was a PR disaster.

Some people argued that the advert served its purpose, it generated publicity and buzz and thus worked. However that is an oversimplification of the core purpose of publicity and advertising at its core. I’m bored, and quite frankly tired, of people thinking that any publicity is good publicity.
No it isn’t.

The only soft drink that should create a buzz

Just because Pepsi were being talked about doesn’t mean it was for the right reasons. There was significant brand damage caused by the insensitive nature of the advert, despite the fact that they apologised, which in this instance was a non-apology. They took the time to direct address the apology towards Kendall Jenner who chose to participate and get paid for the advert and yet did not apologise directly to the communities that they offended, specifically the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I found it bizarre that a company that wanted to promote a “global message” would direct more compassion towards their celebrity brand ambassador than members of the public who are supposed to be spending more on their products. It completely contradicts the basic principles of brand loyalty, in this instance the customer must always come first and by undermining this backlash ensues. I note that Miss Jenner has not (at the time of writing this piece) apologised for her participation in this commercial which is interesting.

It is reductive to assume that just because they were trending and the ad went “viral” that it would mean more money for them. In a social media age, people have the power to hold major corporations to account, in the past a company like Pepsi might have used their size and gravitas to pretty much do whatever they wanted in terms of publicity stunts and advertising. By excusing the advert as not being a big deal because there are more important things to think about in the world also ignores the power of influence, not just of Pepsi but of an individual like Kendall Jenner who has a major following and seems to be popular across some pop culture networks. We cannot ignore the importance of accountability here otherwise we will allow corporations to continually miss the mark on diversity and inclusion when it comes to representation on their boards and teams. Afterall would a truly diverse marketing team allow that advert to have been broadcast after completion or were the naysayers silenced in favour of spreading that “global message”.

I mentioned this whilst speaking to BBC News on the subject:

Civil rights activism is not a game, people have died at the hands of police brutality and a soft drinks ad is basically trivializing it for “global unity” using a number of basic and ill thought out concepts. Here is how Dr King’s daughter responded:

It is time for corporations big and small to be more mindful in how they use Advertising, publicity and marketing to promote their brands particularly when dealing with cultural sensitive issues.

How To Use Social Media Without Losing Your Mind

How To Use Social Media Without Losing Your Mind Ronke Lawal

In this video I provide some straightforward advice on how to use social media without becoming overwhelmed by it! Remember you control social media, don’t let it control you!

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