United Talk

Hey Tyler, to continue our discussion on United Airlines, two big crisis themes standout:

  1. Reputational crises often start on social. The only reason everyone knows about this is because passengers recorded what happened on the plane and shared the video on their channels. As people, we’re almost programmed these days to record and share as a first reaction to everything. United is just one example of this. The same thing could be said of the Harambe/Cincinnati Zoo incident (no one knew the name Harambe prior).
  1. Repetitive failure in the eyes of customers and the general public.Everyone who watched the video couldn’t believe a person, who did nothing wrong, was treated that way. Feeling sorry for a United customer who did nothing wrong was the same feeling after hearing about the passenger who couldn’t fly United because she was wearing leggings. Both incidents happened so close to each other that customers and the general public look at both situations and wonder if United has a bigger customer service issue on its hands.

I know you and I have talked about this but I really think every company needs to understand that situations can go social really fast.


Couldn’t agree more. This is a recurring theme with crisis over the last five years and will just continue to grow as people’s initial reaction is to document what they are seeing. We have a perfect storm in social media where individuals know they can create chaos and brands think they can ignore it.

As long as we continue to have a large gap between the two, brands will remain a step or four behind and make blunders like tweeting that it “reassigned a passenger” or simply take too long formulating what it feels is the perfect response, which just makes it worse. Most of the time people just want to hear “This is our bad, and we will make this right” and move on.

With a long career in crisis management, why do you think most brands are resistant to preparing and reacting on social media for a crisis?


Ah, yes. What I have seen in my 2 ½ years in crisis communications at Jackson Spalding and my 15 years prior as a reporter… is that most brands aren’t putting themselves in the minds of the general public. You have to speak like your audience and communicate at the same pace of your audience. Most people live their lives on social media, meaning they’re used to fast responses from family, friends and everyone else connected to their social channels. Brands must move at the same pace. To do that, they have to hire efficient social monitors and writers, and they have to trust those communications professionals’ judgment and training on crisis communication best practices.

I also think the resistance comes from brands that haven’t experienced a crisis on social media. Even though there are several real-life examples where a brand’s reputation was tarnished from a social crisis, there tends to be a “well, that happened to them” attitude. Instead, we should look at these examples and use them as the spark to prepare. Brands should be proactive when the sky is blue instead of a storm’s aftermath.

Where do you think brands are falling short when it comes preparing and navigating a crisis on social?


I honestly think brands’ biggest mistake is they don’t think or act like the audience they are trying to engage with. The brands that have cracked the code on social are the brands that have become more than just a transactional relationship. Because of this, when a crisis hits people are even harsher on the brand because they have no real relationship with the brand and 99.9% of brands immediately turtle into a shell and spout off corporate speak, which just makes it worse.

You actually nailed it on the head. Brand’s fall short when it comes to planning for a crisis on social because they never think it will happen to them. Despite daily examples of this happening across every vertical imaginable, most brands think they will be okay. I think of social crisis preparedness as auto insurance. You hope you never have to use it, and most times you ever do its just for small fender benders, but maaaaaan are you glad you have it when someone comes out of nowhere and blindsides you.

Until brands stop thinking it will never happen to them and realize social crisis preparedness is a lot less expensive than a potential crisis might be, we will continue to wake up to stories like the airline industry has given us just in the last week.