Appallingly poor online crisis management from United Airlines
United Airlines was riding a wave of social media success following the Olympics. With Facebook contests and Twitter stunts accompanying pictures of returning athletes embracing United staff, the campaign was a mounting success.
Suddenly, the Monday after closing ceremonies, a new and very different story came to light. Here’s the rundown, from a Slate.com article by Will Oremus:
Bob Sutton, a Stanford professor who writes about management and organizations, related on his blog on Monday a tale of appalling customer service. Friends of his had sent their 10-year-old daughter unaccompanied on United to summer camp, assured by the airline that it would take good care of her. Instead, the girl missed her connection in Chicago—apparently because the airline employees who were supposed to help her failed to show up.
When the girl asked for help from other employees, they allegedly told her several times that they were too busy. And the parents only found out about it hours later, when the summer camp called to say their daughter had never arrived. When they called United, they were put on hold for 40 minutes, then told that the whole situation was no big deal. The girl eventually turned up, but it was only after the parents contacted a local TV station that United got serious about apologizing and addressing their concerns, according to Sutton.
This story obvious hit home with many readers, and went viral with ferocity. Suddenly, the thousands of new “fans” United had gained weren’t playing Facebook games, but voicing their rage at the company’s terrible treatment of a young girl and her concerned parents, as well as sharing their own horror stories from flying the airline.
United, which had all appearances of being social media savvy before the crisis dropped, resorted to mass deletion of negative comments from its Facebook wall, which only prompted angry stakeholders to redouble their efforts.
It took a bit over 24 hours – eons in ‘net time – for someone at United to realize their actions were hurting their reputation management efforts and finally issue a public statement:
We appreciate and understand everyone’s concerns over this situation, please know we have reached out directly to the Klebahn family to apologize and are conducting an ongoing investigation. The service they describe is not the service we aim to deliver. We are doing a thorough investigation into what happened and into our procedures to see how we many continually improve.
Although the tone of the post falls somewhere short of heartfelt, it was the right thing to do, and over the next few days the heat surrounding the situation gradually dissipated until United’s social media operations could resume business as usual.
If anything, this incident exposes the fact that social media marketing and social media crisis management are two different creatures, both requiring a different mindset and specific training to be effective.
The BCM Blogging Team