There are PR fails and then there is United

Oh United. What happened? You went from “Come fly the friendly skies” to “Get yo mother#^@%*&ing ass of this plane” and created one of the biggest public relations fails in years.

Here’s what happened.

In April 2017, United oversold a flight from Chicago to Louisville. Ticket agents first asked for volunteers to give up their seats, and when no one did, they begin selecting passengers. One of those refused to give up his seat and United had airport security drag the man off the plane. The incident was captured by several smartphone-wielding passengers. Those videos went viral and United’s public relations nightmare ensued.

To be fair, United isn’t the first brand to have a major pr blunder. But how the company chose to handle it, only created more problems and deeply tarnished the public’s perception of the brand. United got skewered on social media. And rightfully so. But if United had taken a page out of Tylenol’s or Starbucks’ playbooks it might have weathered the storm a whole lot better.

Back in the 1980’s someone maliciously replaced Tylenol capsules with cyanide-laced ones, and placed them on shelves of pharmacy aisles across Chicago.  Several people died as a result. The company took swift action and recalled ALL of its products. It then issued a national warning, established a hotline for consumers, and created a tamper proof bottle. Those actions helped the company rebound from pr nightmare and eventual recover the entire market share it lost during the incident.

Let’s look at a more recent success case.

In 2015, Starbucks attempted to take part in the national dialogue on racial issues. Following the launch of  the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a response to the killings of black people by police officers, Starbucks rolled out the “Race Together” campaign. Baristas were encouraged to write “Race Together” on customers cups as a way discuss what was happening across the country. But the initiative flat-lined and Starbucks was accused of being too tone deaf to the seriousness of the issue. Starbucks quickly reacted to the negative press, cancelling the campaign and issuing a heartfelt response.

A spokesperson for Starbucks commented on the blunder saying, “Our mission is to inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time. We know that we don’t have all the solutions and the answers, but for us, doing nothing makes us part of the problem.”

The company also committed to expanding its stores into urban communities as well as hire 10,000 youth over the next three years.

What United should have learned from both the Tylenol and Starbucks cases is that swift action and a heartfelt apology goes a long way. It doesn’t erase the blunder… but it does help change public perception.


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