United Airlines and the Case of the Walking, Talking Brand

United Airlines and the Case of the Walking, Talking Brand

Nobody’s perfect, right?  Yep, nobody.  But when you’ve had a week like United had last week, you have to take a good long look in the mirror and decide what you really stand for…as a company.  In today’s reality of the constant state of video, social media, and public opinion, companies have to be careful about how they present themselves, especially when you are in the service industry.  It is not often we have a front row seat to what is sure to become a classic PR case study in what not to do, so let’s take advantage of this moment.

When the events of April 9th first hit social media, United’s CEO, who had just the month before won an award as Communicator of the Year, responded quickly.  His first reaction was to say he was sorry that the airline had to “re-accommodate” passengers on the flight.  Then, he announced that United employees had simply followed policy.  Finally, he expressed what seemed like sincere regret for the way the whole debacle had been handled.  Now, the company is changing firm policy regarding how passengers are handled in cases of overbooking, especially when employees are the ones bumping paying customers.

I absorbed all of these events with utter astonishment.  United is a big company, with presumably many of the “best and brightest” in every facet of the industry working there, EVEN in public relations.  I couldn’t believe that at every stage of this event, the actions leading up to it, and the actions that preceded it, they had made such obvious mistakes.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that customers have an adequate number of potential airlines to choose from when traveling, and United doesn’t currently benefit from an airline-favorable oligopoly where customer service falls way down on the priority list because customers ultimately have to choose from only a handful of less than desirable options.  So basically, let’s assume that United wants to please customers to grow revenues and has to actually compete.

In that light, how do you process the actions of United? Can you?  In the book of everything I know about business, coupled with common sense, I cannot.  But the good news is, we get to benefit from the lessons of their (giant) mistakes.

I’ve been saying for a long time that service businesses are more complicated and require far greater leadership than product companies do.  Your brand isn’t just your logo or your website design.  It is walking around in every single employee you hire, mentor and train.  When you run a flourishing service business, your brand is constantly working.  Growth in a service business means that you cannot separate the brand from the people like you can in a product business.  You have to get it right every day.

So, let’s cover the ways in which United failed to get it right and how they could have done it better: