8 questions: Shannon Watts on United's PR strategy and #LeggingsGate

"[United] is a great company that has a poor PR and female communications strategy," says Watts, who chatted with PRWeek to explain why she ignited this debate and how she thinks United should have responded.

Shannon Watts (image via Moms Demand Action website)
Shannon Watts (image via Moms Demand Action website)

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots movement to prevent gun violence, sparked a debate on Sunday after she tweeted about witnessing United Airlines not letting young girls in leggings board a flight due to their attire.

Watts previously led corporate comms at WellPoint, now Anthem; and was VP of crisis comms at FleishmanHillard earlier in her career.

Nearly one week after her tweet began #LeggingsGate, Watts reflects on the situation and explains how she thinks United should have responded.

Start from the beginning. What made you tweet what was happening at the United gate?
It was a conversation that was happening very publicly. This woman did not take these girls aside. It was all happening right in the gate and we all heard [the employee] say loudly, "I don’t make the rules, I just follow them." I wanted to ask United what its policy is because it was bizarre to me they turned girls away from getting on the flight.

I have never cared that they are pass travelers. No one looked inappropriate. It became a big issue because of the way United responded. And because this is incredibly meme-able with celebrities and women and moms who don’t like the idea of policing what women are wearing also got involved.

This is about United creating this dress code that is sexist and gender-based. All the items on the code apply to women; only a handful apply to men. I don’t know who is making these policies. I was shocked with how they responded to me, but they were also arguing with celebrities on Twitter.

How could United have handled this better?
They should have responded with, "Let me look into that, we will get back to you right away." Some way to help diffuse the situation. I felt their messaging was very cold. It was such an opportunity to do the opposite and say, "Wow, these were pass travelers and this is a dress code, but times change and we need to look at this and welcome all female customers with open arms and this is an interesting conversation that is happening and we are going to respond to it." They should also use it to get feedback from female customers. Be part of the conversation and be a game changer. It felt like a response by a conservative, male-driven company. I thought it was tone deaf.

Celebrities weighed in following your tweet storm, suggesting the dress code was absurd and sexist. Are you connected to any of them?
No, I am not followed by any of them.

In the days that followed the initial situation, what did you do in terms of communicating about the incident?
It was instantaneous. It was a Sunday, not a ton of news going on. I was doing interviews from the plane via email and getting tons of tweets and direct messages. I was flying to Mexico for vacation. I landed and immediately had requests for interviews. When I got to Mexico, I did interviews on the phone and via Skype for print and TV outlets. And then I wrote an op-ed for Time that talks about why this is a big issue for women and what we wear. That was also published in People and Cosmopolitan.

This issue of sexism is something I am familiar with. Having become an advocate for gun safety, these kinds of issues occur every day with being a woman working to address gun violence. It was interesting that was also the response to this. After speaking out and defending my position, I have had horrible and incredibly sexist emails, threats, and tweets [sent to me]. It became almost a politically polarizing issue.

What made you push this issue so aggressively?
I don’t know that I did though. I put a few tweets out there. It took on a life of its own because of United’s poor response for several hours and because celebrities and media took it and ran with it. I wanted to explain what my position was on it, which is why I wrote the op-ed.  

United told PRWeek your initial comment on social was made without all the facts. A big part of their comms strategy has been to rectify that and emphasize that the leggings ban is for pass travelers and not regular customers. What is your take on this?
It just seems myopic. It’s an odd strategy to take for a response, and it didn’t endear them to women who agree with me that the dress code should be changed. 

The fault was with United because of their clumsy, inept response and them doubling down on something perceived as antiquated and unfair. Their competitors don’t have this policy. This is an issue that is bigger than United. Companies have to be aware of what the environment is like right now and how are we feeling post-election. If you play into those concerns as opposed to figuring out how to be a voice to embolden women, you are going to get blowback.

A week later, what is your takeaway from this situation?
I am hopeful they will change the policy and change the tone of comms around this. I love United. I fly United all the time. It is a great company that has a poor PR and female communications strategy. I hope they use this as a teachable moment and that going forward they are more empathetic, thoughtful, and compassionate in the tone of their comms.

Are you going to continue to fly United?
Yes. At no point was I calling for a boycott. This is a great company but I want them to do the right thing about their dress code and for their female flyers.

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