United Airlines' Passenger Ejection May Cause Permanent Brand Damage, Experts Say

Social Media Backlash Shifts From Pepsi to United Airlines

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United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from the plane after he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Video taken by Jayse D. Anspach
United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from the plane after he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Video taken by Jayse D. Anspach Credit: Jayse D. Anspach via Twitter

Pepsi may be secretly thanking United Airlines today as social media backlash has shifted from the beverage brand's Kendall Jenner ad fiasco to the airline company after a video surfaced Sunday evening of a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight.

Brand and communications experts told Ad Age that this public relations nightmare could impact UA's reputation and business results in the long run, especially with the incident following just weeks after another sticky situation in which two teenagers were stopped from boarding a flight for wearing leggings. In that incident, though, the airline said the girls were traveling on "buddy passes," which requires adherence to a policy dress code.

Despite the social media storm, stocks for UA parent United Continental Holdings were up about 1% on Monday afternoon. Also, the airline has no current plans to alter its advertising schedule, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Edelman is United Airlines' PR agency of record and McGarryBowen is the brand's advertising partner. Representatives from both agencies were not immediately available for comment.

Check below for some thoughts from brand, reputation and communications experts on what UA should be focusing on right now as it wades through the crisis.

Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing, Kellogg School of Management: "The top priority is reaching the customers on the flight, especially the people who were removed. United should do whatever it takes to address their concerns. United also needs to express remorse for what happened. An advertising effort seems appropriate. Then United needs to assemble a team to figure out what happened and how to prevent it. In particular, what company policies led to this action? United should move with speed and commitment to get ahead of this."

Howard Fencl, VP, Hennes Communications: "United CEO Oscar Munoz needed to immediately apologize. He did not. Instead, he offered a non-apology, 'for having to re-accommodate these customers.' Basically, he is apologizing for their overbooking policy, and not the violence and humiliation their passenger suffered, or the emotional distress it caused all the other passengers witnessing this unnecessary event. Ultimately, the bigger picture here is that United needs to overhaul its overbooking policy. If it is known that a flight crew needs to take seats with passengers on a flight, that must be known well enough in advance that employees staffing the gate make room for them before passengers are boarded."

Gene Grabowski, partner, Kglobal: "In the face of the online video, apologies and assurances that United is looking into the matter aren't enough. United would be well advised to announce that it is hiring a person of stature and who is well-respected to very visibly oversee and repair the airline's customer service operation."

Maarten L. Albarda, CEO, Flock Associates USA: "The best thing is to very publicly rectify the wrong that has been seen around the world. You can't even begin to explain it or make it factual. What matters is the perception, so UA needs to address that publicly, and then lay low for a little bit. The most important thing for UA is to review what happens on the shop floor. How come employees from UA felt that this solution was the best strategy? How well are the social media teams briefed on, structured for and empowered to address issues like these? Is there a clear escalation process?"

Matt Rizzetta, CEO, North 6th Agency: "If the initial reaction on social media and at office watercoolers is any indication, United has already lost a significant group of customers. Right now United would be best served to approach its communications strategy into two customer retention buckets; one for customers that are still remaining loyal to the brand, and one for customers that claim they are never coming back to the brand. For the first bucket it's all about quick and swift communication that reinforces United's values and shows immediate differentiation from the competition. The second bucket is a long-term strategy that will require a more personalized approach and can only be rebuilt over time."

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