United Airlines and the Firestorm of Social Media

Is Your Organization Ready for Online Criticism?

For a Christian leader, the recent blow-up at United Airlines should be a teaching moment on the power of social media. You no doubt heard the story about an overbooked flight, and the passenger (who had paid for his ticket and was already seated on the plane) who was physically ejected for another passenger. Right or wrong, the incident was recorded on video and it quickly became the top story in the media. By the next morning, the social media memes had been launched:

Any organization of any size can experience that kind of nightmare, and social media amplifies it for the world to see. CNN reported that in less than 48 hours, United lost more than $250 million in value. So if you’re a leader, here’s what to remember in today’s digital, text message, and social media world:

1) Whatever mistake you or your organization makes, assume it will be videotaped. There are simply too many phones these days to avoid it (in America there are now more phones than people), and there are few things more damaging than seeing the incident on video. Expect it, and always think about that before you get angry, upset, or do something you’ll regret later

2) The social media firestorm happens quickly. A few years ago I helped a church deal with the media aftermath of a pastor who had fallen from grace (to put it mildly.) When the Executive Pastor called me for advice, the pastor had just confessed to the elder board seconds before, so nobody else knew. But at the end of the call, I did a Google search just to see if anything had been leaked. To my surprise, the entire story was on the home page of a website on the other side of the country. In a digital world, word travels fast.

3) Social media critics are brutal. Before United had their day in court, or even a chance to tell their side of the story, they were overwhelmed by the critics. But as you’ve seen in these memes, the critics don’t care. They’ve made up their mind and start unleashing their venom on social media. Funny or not, it’s damaging, and can cause some otherwise good companies and organizations to collapse.

4) Finally, have a reaction plan in place. Today we live in a world where a housewife in Tulsa can bring down a major company simply through the momentum of social media. That’s why your church, ministry, nonprofit, or business needs a strategy for defense when something happens. How do you respond? Who’s the spokesperson? What should we say or not say? All those questions and more should be dealt with now, so when something happens, you’re ready

Ad by the way – note I didn’t say “IF” something happens, I said “WHEN” something happens. In today’s transparent world, sooner or later, right or wrong, innocent or not, a mistake will be made.

Will your organization be ready?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great discussion, Phil. Thanks! My initial reaction to the incident as a long-time PR professional was shock at a lack of common sense in many areas. But, unfortunately in situations like this, those in power often default to standing strong and defending the actions of themselves and/or their organization without taking time to understand where the outrage is coming from. Yes, an immediate plan of action is vital! But be sure you’ve carefully thought through all sides before responding. Humility is actually a powerful and brave response. As we all saw from this soon to be PR case study, a strong defense for your organization often times comes across as just defensive. And that doesn’t look good on anyone!

    • I love your line “Humility is actually a powerful and brave response.” Well said, and not something most organizations do well in the heat of a crisis. Thanks for that great advice Mandy!

  • Neil Werenskjold

    In Public Affairs for the Air Force we had one hour to acknowledge an event occurred. That could be anything from an aircraft crash to a disturbance on base. You do not need to give many details but you do need to show in good faith your intensions are to report what actually happened as soon as possible. If anyone was hurt or killed we had 24 hours to get names out as long as next of kin have been notified for loss of life.

    That is an example of a plan that you are talking about. United Airlines first release, that I was aware of, was terrible. Siding with your employees pits big business against their customers. It shows no willingness to fairly examine the event.

    To avoid any appearance of a cover-up get your initial press release out as quick as you can. Do not include any judgements, only state what happened and that an investigation will take place for this event. You would be surprised how many obvious first impressions are incorrect. So do not speculate, only report solid facts.

    In a church situation it maybe a great opportunity to demonstrate grace and love by avoiding piling on even when you think you have a license to teach someone a lesson. Do not do it in public. Proverbs 17:9 is guidance I try my best to remember when I am trying to find words to say in public about another. But the hurtful facts may have to be reported just try to do it as graciously as possibly.

    • Great checklist Neil. As you say, responding quickly is critical.

  • With the proliferation of technology and social media — every organization, every ministry, and every leader lives in a glass house — 24/7. As this story demonstrates, your world can be turned upside down in a matter of moments – and on social media there are no rules of engagement … it can be brutal. This should indeed be a signal to every pastor, church and ministry organization to prepare now for the day when mistakes are made and the firestorm strikes. Transparency and humility are certainly core components, but developing a strategic crisis response plan — in advance — can contain the damage that a PR crisis can bring.

  • Marika Flatt

    Phone video absolutely transforms a bad PR situation like this; as now the public decides for themselves based on visual proof. Luckily, at PR by the Book we don’t have to deal with crisis communications; however, this is one area where the old adage “All publicity is good publicity,” is definitely not true! Anyone leading an organization needs to be ready to be transparent, honest and humble in a crisis.

  • David Winston

    This is a great blog post! Great tips for leaders in ministry!

  • leilanihaywood

    I started writing a blog post called ‘What the Church Can Learn From the United Airlines Debacle.’ You are so right. Social media has completely changed the game. I’ve seen huge ministries taken down by bloggers. Before social media, TV was the platform that could shut down someone’s ministry. Now the ire spreads faster. I’m surprised that the United Airlines PR people were clueless as to how to respond. I know it is a high-stress job and have been in that world myself but I would have taken a totally different approach to managing this storm. I don’t think it would have had to been so bad if it was handled differently. I think ministries and churches NEED to be proactive about this. Like you said, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ That should keep you busy for the next 10 years helping churches and ministries create a crisis management plan lol.

  • Scott Walsh

    Great post as always, Phil. I agree with just about everything you, and Neil, said. Timeliness is very important; don’t wait or sit back and hope it will blow over. As we know with this situation and in the social media world we live in, a given situation is just as likely to blow up as blow over.

    I would add to Neil’s comments that the first person to face the issue should not be the CEO. Send the head PR professional or director of communications out to make the initial statement. He/she is (or should be) the expert and should handle that; let them take the initial flack. Doing so buys you some time so that a little later, when you’ve had a chance to gather the facts and frame a statement (based on truth and humility), the CEO can address the issue.

    (I find the United issue rather interesting, as there do exist layers of nuance not apparent in the video. Things like the doctor’s past history (which is completely irrelevant, in my opinion, to what transpired–but is, nonetheless, “out there”); that United, like all airlines, appears to have the right to remove passengers from flights for a variety of reasons; that the doctor refused initial requests to comply; and that the individuals who executed the removal (or “re-accommodation,” as United CEO Oscar Munoz so incredibly tone-deafly called it) of the passenger were not United employees but Chicago Aviation Department police–all of these are, to a greater or lesser degree, somewhat mitigating circumstances.)

    But, relevant or not, NONE of those factors, in my opinion, can overcome the optics of the video (to echo Marika’s point). The other truth about the culture we live in today–besides being heavily social media saturated–is that those same individuals are far less aware of facts or background on ANY matter–witness the truly pathetic number of Americans who can’t identify the three branches of government, or name the Vice President of the United States, or identify who the United States fought in World War II, or locate Syria on a map. That low level of general knowledge and awareness of news and current events is appalling, and no PR can overcome that. In the court of public opinion, this particular video is judge, jury and executioner.

    The bottom line for any organization, and all the more for a Judeo-Christian organization or one run by a person or people of faith, is this: 1) tell the truth, 2) be humble, 3) identify the problem, 4) communicate specifically what you will do to correct the problem (short and long term), 5) follow through and DO that and 5) then tell the public, again, what you did to fix it. One other aspect of American society, for better or worse, is that we tend to be a pretty forgiving people. After some time, we frequently move on and give second chances. Not always, but often. Following these steps can help make that happen.

    And if I may shamelessly plug the organization I work for, I believe it is relevant in this situation. First Liberty Institute is the largest law firm in the nation that defends exclusively First Amendment, religious freedom cases. One of the things we do is work with individuals and organizations like churches and ministries to help them have their legal documentation–things like bylaws and charters and statements of faith–in order BEFORE they have a legal (or PR) issue flare up. It is far easier for us to defend an organization whose documentation . Visit our web site at http://www.firstliberty.org for more information and to download a free Religious Liberty Protection Kit (and please note that the opinions expressed above are mine personally as a former PR professional, and are NOT those of my employer).

    If anyone would like to contact me for further information, Phil has my contact information.

    Thanks!

  • Neil Werenskjold

    I remember this quote from my PR training. Hope it sheds light. It is very heavy.

    “In the first place, let us see what influence he is exerting on public sentiment. In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” Abraham Lincoln August 21, 1858

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