Why does a story go viral – like United Airlines bumped passenger? Case Study / Crisis communications / Reputation Management

Why does a story go viral? The United Airlines bumped passenger story offers us a nice insight into the power of communications.

I suspect that this situation doesn’t make an appearance in United’s crisis manual. But then, it’s not a crisis. It’s a poorly handled issue – at the moment.

Much like when two weeks ago, the airline refused to let two girls board because they were wearing leggings in breach of a dress code for those travelling on an employee or guest ticket. But then those girls didn’t get bloodied faces for their pains.

Standing back from the fuss in both the Twitterverse and traditional media, what have we got?

Poor operational procedures by United Airlines that should have bumped passengers at the gate rather than on the plane – possibly a one-off circumstance.

Heavy-handed action by three security individuals who are not employees of United Airlines but of the Chicago Department of Aviation.

The reputational consequences arose for three reasons.

First, the operational issues were compounded by poor quality, tone-deaf communications by United Airlines. They lacked speed, a meaningful apology or demonstration of remorse for a fare-paying customer and failed to align internal and external communications.

Second, each member of the flying public can empathise. They can envisage themselves being in the same situation.

Third, it is rare. Out of 615 million travellers on US airlines last year, just 46,000 passengers were bumped to another flight. And while many of the them may have been unwilling, none of them were assaulted.

So where will this end up? I’m guessing some changed procedures, some slight short term turbulence in the share price, a tiny number of people who refuse to fly United Airlines and then no change. Whatever the Twitterati says.

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