How Your Company Can Avoid Becoming the Next United Airlines

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about United Airline’s decision to force a paying customer off a flight. The passenger refused to go, was dragged off by police, other people filmed the event and United lost hundreds of millions of dollars in value. This is a public relations nightmare.

While you can’t control what will or will not go viral, you can take steps to help prevent a negative news story about your employees from circulating the web. Here’s how to avoid becoming the next United Airlines in the headlines.

Every Employee Is a Public Relations Specialist

Back before YouTube was a thing, companies had strict policies: Employees were not to speak with the press without express permission from the public relations department. That is still a great policy, but it’s kind of outdated. Today, you have to assume that every person who comes into contact with your business or your employees can post the encounter on the internet with the intention of “exposing” you, and that means that every employee should be acting as if a reporter is observing them at all times.

Make sure your employees know this is a possibility. You need to train them to think “how would this play out on the internet?” at all times. If the answer is “really badly,” then they need to change what they are doing.

Employees Need the Ability to Think Outside the Box

What makes an otherwise normal person think “the solution to this problem is to call the police to force a paying customer off the plane?” They needed the seat, so someone had to go, right? Well, no. What they needed was to get four employees to a destination. They could have done a bunch of different things—they could have offered more money to get volunteers, they could have tried to place either the employees or the customers on other airlines, they could have rented a car and had the employees drive 4-5 hours to the destination. Heck, they could have chartered a private jet to take the employees, and it still would have been cheaper than the stock loss United faced!

This is not to say that customers are always right, all the time. They aren’t. It’s not that you should bend over backward for horrible customers. You shouldn’t. But your employees should have the latitude to make decisions that will treat customers with decency and keep situations calm (not to mention off social media).

Being Right Is Not the Most Important Thing

While the internet is busy debating whether United had the right to forcibly drag an already seated passenger off the plane, it’s really irrelevant. Let’s assume that United is 100 percent in the right here. It still doesn’t change a thing. They’ve lost the same amount of money, received the same amount of bad press, and faced the same number of hilarious memes mocking them. It doesn’t matter who was right; United still came out looking wrong.

Think about that when you’re enforcing your policies: Who will look better if this goes viral? How would it have looked instead if the employees had offered a free trip to Hawaii for the volunteers? That might have gone viral as well, with much better consequences.

Three things all employees need to remember: They are all PR reps, being right is not as important as being kind and there is always another solution. Yes, there will be times when the police need to be called, but those are rare. If you can get these things into your employee’s heads, you’ve just drastically reduced your chance of being the next public relations disaster.

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11 thoughts on “How Your Company Can Avoid Becoming the Next United Airlines

  1. I didn’t think much of this incident until so many versions of story bombarded the internet. I went and researched the entire incident to get full story not the little clips being shown.
    Main problem I saw, was lack of coordinated procedures by any airline in cases like this, why he need, how to remove passengers, how high amount of payment can be offered, etc.
    The situation had many problems– One, last minute schedule need for staff, there needs to be cutoff time. Two, why was the plane fully loaded with passengers one hour to takeoff. I have never flown and had to sit in an airplane prior to takeoff that long except when bad weather was delaying takeoff. Three, again if you are going to overbook flight, no changes should be made once everyone is seated. The only reason to remove a passenger at that point should be an extreme emergency , this situation was not.
    Now for removing passengers for extreme emergencies situations, the representatives requesting this of passenger should be prepared to offer compensation ( money) besides new flight ticket. Enough to get passengers to jump at offer.
    If , as this case, there is no volunteers, at first offer, raise amount until the offer is accepted.
    I can’t believe that the entire plane of passengers, felt like not taking offer. Were they all in a hurry to get to location.?
    Because the representatives didn’t up the offer enough and resorted to lottery system of removal, I hope some announcement was made about the right of airline to remove a passenger when it deemed necessary and consequences of not complying, especially with law enforcement standing right there. People today think that they should be able to resist law enforcement and claim harassment and brutality while they are resisting. By resisting, one causes harm to self.
    I agree that there should be regulations in place for the employees But customers should also follow protocol also. Buying a ticket on standby to save money doesn’t guarantee a seat at your convenience but the airline’s
    Ever incident described so far has been customers pushing pass the rules and getting mad and belligerent when asked to comform to the rules , by creating a scene .

    1. I agree that United has no good policy for their gate agents and flight attendants. I was recently bounced out of a First Class seat on a United flight that I paid for so they could give a free upgrade to another passenger. The gate agent apparently made the decision on the fly, and refused to give me my seat.

      To BethRa’s point, my educated guess is that the fir the flight in question HAD and EXERCISED latitude, but used poor judgement. They put United’s internal convenience above good customer service and common decency.

      United needs to sit down with a team that includes some front-line staff and make some policies. For instance, one a passenger is given a seat, should he be bounced for the Airline’s simple convenience?

      To make these decisions on the fly is a recipe for problems that United then must clean up.

    2. Buying a ticket on standby to save money doesn’t guarantee a seat at your convenience but the airline’s

      I am not sure how this point is relevant to the story of Dr Dao.

      And btw, the flight was not overbooked.

  2. “But your employees should have the latitude to make decisions that will treat customers with decency and keep situations calm.”

    This. This, this, this. You can talk about customer service all you want, but if your practice is to come down hard on employees who deviate from strict procedure, you are setting them and your company up to fail. Most employees will chose self-preservation over customer service every time.

  3. These situations will keep on happening without new policies. As customers, we pay for a service that they are allowed to take away at any time for any reason. Any reason at all. We are treated either as terrorists or petulant toddlers. If you don’t do exactly as you’re told, the second you’re told, you lose the service you already paid for. The recent episodes are only about ego. Someone didn’t jump when told to jump and an employee got high on power. It is wrong that passengers can be removed from a plane because an employee is “uncomfortable.” That term is now a sword to cut you down.

  4. It boggles my mind that the problem wasn’t turned over to a manager, or the manager’s manager, or so far up the chain until it reached someone who could make the decisions necessary to advert the PR nightmare. I understand that time was scarce, but their should be some kind of hierarchy in place to step in. People are removed from flights every day, maybe even every minute, and gate attendants can’t be expected to deescalate every conflict on their own.

  5. The problem is that people are already anxious that at any time an airline can cancel a filght or bump them. There is no guarantee that you will get to your destination. When you don’t have the vacation time to fly days earlier or come home earlier it is very stressful and emotions are already high. The airline industry needs to understand that.

    When I was flying across country to officiate my sister’s wedding the first flight was cancelled and I had to fly out the next day (I actually left a day earlier than needed because I was worried). Then, at the gate it was annouced that they were overbooked and asked for volunteer and continued to make rude announcements and glare at people because not many people were volunteering. I was so stressed because I was already a day late because of the cancellation and I would have thrown a fit if I, not only missed my sister’s wedding, but her whole wedding would have been affected without me there. The airlines do not care.

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