How social media can help a bad news story grow arms and leg(gings)

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Social media is part and parcel of communications these days, both for businesses and personal networks. It allows brands to engage with customers, helping them to feel valued and connected and yet we all know that it can just take one mistake for a brand to go viral for all the wrong reasons.

Case in point, United Airlines, who over the past 24 hours have provided a master class in appearing tone-deaf to customers across the internet.

The whole saga started Sunday morning, when Shannon Watts, a political activist in US politics, tweeted United to say that she had seen three girls (later estimated to be in their early teens) refused boarding on a flight from Denver to Minneapolis because they were wearing spandex leggings.

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United simply responded to the tweet, saying that the airline reserves the right to refuse transport for passengers are “barefoot or not properly clothed.”

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At this point social media took off, accusing the airline of sexism, inconsistency, sexualising the attire of young people and even “the worst brand management on twitter” while United stuck to its line over and over. Eventually, perhaps in an attempt to shut down the controversy, United issued a single tweet response saying they acknowledged the severity of the situation, were investigating and had no further information.

A little later still and following the apparent investigation, United abruptly changed the script. The airline began stipulating in its responses to the incoming complaints that the reason the girls had been barred from travelling was that as United pass holders – aka passengers using the company’s staff and family benefits to get free or discounted flights – their leggings had not met the brand’s requirements for brand ambassadors.

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In any case, the explanation wasn’t enough to stem oncoming criticism on social media. By Sunday night every media outlet from Fox News to BBC was weighing in. So too were celebrities, including Patricia Arquette, Chrissy Teigan, Seth Rogan and Sarah Silverman, the latter threatening to cancel every flight with United booked as part of her upcoming stand-up tour. United was forced to issue a statement assuring customers that they and their leggings were welcome. 24 hours later, the story was just refusing to go away.

The issue escalated for a number of reasons. Firstly, the brand engaged with the initial tweet, which might have been the opportunity it needed to shut it down. Instead, the reasoning given was unclear. Safety, staff discretion and sexism were all mooted by tweeters on both sides of the argument but United failed to explain its own policy. By sticking to one single response that was clearly not having the desired impact, the airline looked like it was ignoring the obvious feelings of its customers and the public.

When United eventually landed on the United Pass explanation, it looked inconsistent given its previous hard-line response. In addition, the fact that the girls were so young and that a man had been apparently let on the same flight while wearing shorts opened the airline up. A ‘them’s the rules’ response didn’t add up.

Whether or not you agree that brand ambassadors should conform to a higher standard of dress while travelling, United didn’t (and at the time of writing still doesn’t) seem to understand that the policy explanation isn’t popular. By continually arguing the point, the airline is adding more heat to the story.

Social media can be a great tool for businesses to engage, but to engage they have to show that they are listening to criticism. Sticking to an unpopular line won’t cut it on social media. If United wasn’t prepared to work with customers and critics in that way, the most advisable course of action might have been its middle response – to acknowledge the situation and offer to investigate, taking the issue off of social media all together. In situations like these it’s important for brands to act readily and take time to put together an appropriate response. United jumped the gun far too early. They decided to investigate the situation only after their knee jerk response, which only added fuel to this viral fire. The three steps that any brand should take to any customer complaint should be:

  • Reassure customer that the matter is being looked into
  • Investigate the issue
  • When the issue has gained clarity, respond promptly to the customer

It’s important to sympathise with the customer and relate to them on a human level. United did neither of these and that is why this issue spiralled out of their control.

Eilidh Dickson is a Senior Account Executive at Indigo