There always seems to be no shortage of news stories on how airlines screw up something, but this week United showed us just how bad airline PR can be. I noted this back during the Ebola outbreak, but it seems that United has a complete inability to get out in front of news stories that hurt their brand (which is hard to do given the fact that AirfareWatchdog just rated them the worst U.S. airline, a title they have held for the past couple of years.
The story I think really demonstrates how an airline can shoot itself in the foot is their lawsuit against a 22-year-old entrepreneur who helps people find lower fares. The lawsuit is in conjunction with Orbitz. Seriously think about this, the same industry that does whatever it can to cut its prices, often times at the expense of passenger comfort, are suing a 22 year old because he’s helping travelers make flying more affordable? The idea that an airline would sue over this is absurd, and it only demonstrates the airline industry’s predisposition to believing it has the monopoly on being cheap.
That story certainly takes the cake for United’s PR disaster, but then United got a shot in the other foot with a story about a dog being left on the tarmac. In fairness, United claims that the dog was left there for a couple minutes because pets are loaded last and that security footage shows the dog was never left alone, the fact that this photo got RTed 1,600 times and United failed to get out in front of it, just shows a total inability to respond efficiently to these problems.
One simple photo can make itself around the world within an hour with today’s use of social media, and it’s amazing that airlines can lag so far behind in using social media and combating social media. I don’t know who is in charge of United’s PR, but they really could use a reboot and get more in touch with how to put out fires before a simple photo of a dog on a tarmac makes the news for three or four news cycles. Also, it also isn’t the best PR to sue a 22-year-old, and as his Go Fund Me Page demonstrates, a lot of people tend to agree that this is nothing but a large corporation trying to bully a start-up that may one day impact United’s profits.
Also, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m hating on United alone. I think a number of airlines completely fail to deal with problems before they explode and become a major story. This is an age where all companies need to be ready and willing to deal with small problems that have the potential to be big ones. This week provides a good lesson on how an airline shouldn’t operate its PR apparatus, and I am sure there will be other weeks like this for other airlines in the coming year.