It was the PR nightmare shared around the world. On the evening of April 9th, aboard an overbooked United Airlines flight, a passenger was forcibly removed from his seat and off the plane by three security officers. The incident was shared publicly in a 31-second Facebook video by a nearby passenger. It was later determined and released to the public that injuries sustained by the removed passenger included a concussion and a broken nose.

Public outrage was almost immediate, with the video of the incident going viral and memes spreading across the internet within hours. United was swift in its response, too, reacting to the first tweets regarding the incident within seven minutes. United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz issued a formal apology the day following the incident, but by this time, the damage was done: 91% of reactions to his post were “angry,” suggesting that not only was the response too late, but the tone was also a miss. United tried again a day later with a second apology from the CEO using a more remorseful tone in which he called the incident “truly horrific.” This post received only 73% “angry” reactions and 14% “likes” or “loves,” signifying that while this apology was more in line with the public’s expectations, opinions had already been firmly set.

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The impact wasn’t isolated to social media. In an effort to temporarily halt brand awareness, never a position in which a brand wants to find itself, United scaled back on nearly all planned email, online and mobile media spend. Now, a week after the incident, marketing efforts are still completely halted, according to research from Mintel Comperemedia. While United’s stock price plummeted immediately following the incident, it rebounded quickly, and although it remains below pre-incident levels, it is on an upward trajectory.

This incident highlights the impact of the digital world we live in today. What once may have been contained to a single plane full of people is now on display for the world to view and judge, all a result of the prevalence of mobile phones and social media. This incident has left many brands wondering, “Could something like this happen to us, and if so, what can we do differently?” While actions of single employees, legal policies and world events are out of brands’ control, the ways in which they respond to negative events are not. The Mintel Trend ‘Accentuate the Negative’ speaks to these circumstances, urging companies who find themselves in hot water to address consumer criticism head-on by quickly and visibly reacting to it – with the right message.

While a daunting and potentially risky move, some brands have done it right. Brazilian beer brand Skol was deemed sexist based on its campaign that used posters showing bikini-clad women serving beer to men. In an effort to turn its image into one highlighting inclusiveness and respect, Skol launched the “Reposter” project, in which female artists were invited to redesign old posters to reflect Skol’s updated core values. While it is too early to see the impact of the recently launched campaign, initial online hype is positive.

In an epic scandal last year, Wells Fargo employees were caught creating fraudulent accounts for customers in order to meet aggressive sales goals, greatly damaging the brand’s reputation centered on trust. Wells Fargo has since launched a new campaign, “Building Better Every Day,” openly addressing the need for the company to rebuild trust. Highlighting its renewed transparency and customer-focus, on March 16th Wells Fargo tweeted a link to its most recent annual report focused on “our commitment to building a better company.” After plummeting in September 2016, Wells Fargo stock prices have since returned to pre-scandal levels.

What we think

While some may argue that United’s stock price suggests that the crisis is a PR one alone, halting all digital advertising for a week and counting surely has a cost. Online ads aren’t there to be seen and emails aren’t in inboxes to be read, leaving the brand ultimately exposed to competitors. From both a monetary and a PR standpoint, companies can look to United’s recent events and learn from them. Because of the prevalence of social media today, news becomes mainstream in an instant. Responding quickly is imperative, but just as important as haste is the message. Being seen as deflecting or avoiding responsibility is not generally well-received, and brands that have the courage to hit negative events head-on have an opportunity to be seen as authentic, and can turn negative sentiment into a positive. While it likely won’t be without pain and won’t be overnight, there may be a silver lining in all PR nightmares.

Ashley Wall is a Research Manager with Comperemedia, specializing in omni-channel marketing trends, consumer trends and competitive intelligence.

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