The United Airlines incident was viral content, not a crisis

Whatever United Airlines is going through, it's not a crisis. Just because you've drafted a holding statement about something doesn't make it a crisis.

Crisis? This isn't a crisis, argues Peter Elms
Crisis? This isn't a crisis, argues Peter Elms

Just because some people are saying bad things about you, it doesn’t mean your brand is damaged.

Then what is a crisis?

In the context of an airline it’s relatively straightforward; there are very real moments when an airline requires 'crisis communications support'.

What happened on the United flight was something not very nice that made for shareable content.

No one comes out of this one looking great.

Not the airline whose policy it was to put their staff above their passengers; the aviation security officers who thought it was OK to drag a sixty-nine-year-old grandfather out of a plane; the passengers filming the whole thing; the thirty-odd press officers it took to draft the horrible holding statements; the 2016 PRWeek US Award-winning-CEO who put his name to said holding statements; and maybe, just maybe, the guy that refused to get off the plane when he fell foul of something he’d agreed to when he didn’t think it would be his problem.

No, I’m not #victimblaming – I just know I’d want him to simply get off the plane if I was on that flight. And that’s before the PRs got involved.

The language used in United’s CEO Oscar Munoz’ statements was a case study in weird.

Munoz should have said sorry if he felt sorry or not if he didn’t. In fact, he probably should have said sorry even if he wasn’t sorry, because sometimes that’s what you need to do to sell plane tickets.

Not a crisis, just humans being human.

Yes, but 'consider the brand damage', say the pundits, and the clichéd and untrue 'you can’t put a price on reputation’.

Immediately after the incident, United’s stock price rose, fell and then rose a bit. That’s all very short term, very predictable and not that relevant to brand value.

A brand helps you sell things; in United’s case, this means plane tickets. Plane tickets are close to being commodity products – price (and safety) matters.

Had something happened that questioned United’s ability to offer cheap, safe flights (a plane crash caused by cost cutting) then they’d be in trouble.

But that didn’t happen. This was an airline that competes on cost, behaving like one.

Consumers like low-cost airlines because they are what they are.

We should remember that there’s a big gap between what people say and how they act.

You don’t need a focus group to tell you that (in fact, a focus group would tell you the complete opposite).

What consumers want, and not what some of them tweet about, should have been front and centre of any PR advice Munoz received, because that’s what matters in the long term, and that’s what we forget as a profession as soon as we go into 'crisis mode'.

People will say bad things about you, but it won’t stop them buying you if your core brand offering isn’t hit.

Just ask Ryanair, Amazon, Google, Uber, Starbucks, Samsung and Donald Trump.

Peter Elms is director of Alpaca Communications

Thumbnail image credit: from video by @Tyler_Bridges on Twitter


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