PR disasters can strike at any moment, even with the best preparation, and they can quickly spiral out of control. Of course, if they are dealt with properly, then they are quickly forgotten and a brand can recover.
Recently, the Asda supermarket chain was celebrating the opening of its first ever store on the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately, all anyone was talking about was the fact that ‘Isle of Wight’ had been mis-spelled (they went for ‘Isle of White’) on all the special edition bag for life carrier bags.
Apologies were made all round, a recall of all the bags was issued, and no significant harm was done.
Earlier in August, the Government’s Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry MP embarrassed himself as he visited the site of the new bridge in Sunderland. Sadly, he referred to the river as the ‘Tyne’, not the Wear.
It wasn’t a great move for a minister who already faces a huge battle to convince anyone that the Northern Powerhouse concept still has a future. His PR people were quick to address the issue, though, and point out he had managed to get the name correct in all of his other interviews that day.
The travel industry is, of course, no exception to a PR gaffe and this year, a company became a household name after a PR blunder went viral – and was then compounded by a series of bungled apologies.
At the start of 2017, chances are most people would have had little or no significant opinion about United Airlines.
As a brand, it hardly attracted the widespread enthusiasm of the likes of Apple or Lego, but nor did it attract any undue negative attention. It was seen as a solid, successful and popular airline. (If anything, it attracted sympathy because of its unfortunate involvement with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)
Then, three separate incidents occurred that underline how quickly things can change in the business world if your customer service policies aren’t completely watertight.
First of all, in March, two teenage girls were banned from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings – an outfit that apparently contravened an on-board dress code.
Needless to say, there was a strong response on social media from people who understood that many people’s priority whilst flying is feeling as comfortable as possible.
Secondly, (and you can’t have failed to see this story) came the distressing videos of a man, who turned out to be a doctor, being forcibly dragged from an aeroplane because he refused to disembark.
The flight had been over-sold, and names had been drawn at random to give up their seat. The passenger refused, and United Airlines’ heavy-handed security stepped in.
The negative PR that this created was colossal. The video went instantly viral, and the company did itself further damage with its half-hearted apologies.
The company’s stock nosedived, and more apologies came – but by this point, it seemed as if the apologies were only being issued to appease shareholders.
Yet still the company managed to attract global attention that it might normally have avoided. The latest story came when a giant rabbit, being transported to a new home, died in transit (the rabbit was travelling to O’Hare airport. Cue lots of pictures of a cute, if scarily large, bunny and its distressed breeder. Even more unfortunate was the fact the rabbit was travelling to O’Hare airport…
However, despite all that, the company hasn’t actually had a bad year. It’s share prices took a battering around those incidents, but then rallied to reach an historic high in June. It has since dipped again, but remains at high levels.
What’s the lesson here? Well, there are a huge number of ways in which United Airlines could have acted better than it did, and all would have helped to mitigate the damage done.
Treating your customers properly from the start always helps, but responding quickly, with humility and genuine remorse, goes a long way, especially in the current climate of frenzied social media reactions.
At Business Travel, our duty of care never ends, and remains as fastidious as it’s always been. It’s why so many of our customers have stayed with us for so many years.
Plus, if you ever find yourself on a United Airlines flight and volunteer to give up your seat, you can rest assured we’ll look after you and still get you to your destination quickly!