How Brands Should Deal with a Social Media Crisis. United Airlines case

Written by Alexandros Drakoulis

With the huge rise of Social Media over the last decade, a new era has begun in the web environment. The presence of social media such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter etc have utterly changed the online scene for brand managers and marketers (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Billions of people were now connected and were able to express their thoughts, write articles, share images and videos.

Social media brought the world closer by providing a platform where everyone and from everywhere could join. Just to take a picture and understand the massive size of social media; Facebook statistics in 2014, showed that their monthly active users are 1.39 billion people, while Youtube users account for more than 1 billion as well (Facebook, 2015; Youtube, 2015).

Complementing social media, Web 2.0 technologies, were developed to complete this new web environment. Web 2.0 technologies permitted a two-way communication between brands and consumers, and for the first time, brands gained the opportunity of being able to listen to their costumers and receive feedback regarding their products and services (Fournier & Avery, 2011). The extreme rates of users in social media seemed to be the perfect opportunity for brand managers. Brand manager now had the power to increase brand awareness and target their audiences more effective than ever. Oppositely to traditional media such as radio and television, they were now able to reach 50 million consumers in just 4 years of advertising and promotional campaigns, instead of 38 and 14 years respectively (Ceballos, 2015).

On the other hand, a paradox stated by Fournier & Avery (2011) explains, that despite the excessive numbers of users in social media, brand messages might never reach them, because users tend to ignore them. As much as brand managers would like to leverage social media usage to their advantage, the truth is that social media have not been created to sell branded products, instead their aim was to connect humans.

Brands practically invaded the world of social media in an environment not very welcoming for them. Hence, social media users have viewed then as the “party crashers”. And even if brands grabbed the “opportunity” and created Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+ pages, and launched Youtube channels, online consumers were only interested to find an easier way to complain and get better deals (Fournier & Avery, 2011).

Brand managers’ hope to effectively share their brand stories, gain exposure, maximize brand equity, promote their branded products, increase sales etc slowly fade out when they discovered the two sides of the coin (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Yes, social media provided them the benefits of having a cheap solution to reach their desired target groups, but, on the other hand, there were a lot of challenges that they had to face as well.

Due to the structure of social media and Web 2.0 technologies, consumers were now empowered to share their own brand stories. They were able to narrate stories from a personal point of view, as narratives and dramas; projecting personal experiences and summaries of a person-to-brand relationships which further boosted the persuasive power of such consumer generated stories (Gensler, Völckner, Liu-Thompkins, & Wiertz, 2013). This kind of stories were thus easier to remember and could easily be engraved into other consumers “consideration set” in a negative sense. “A consideration set is that set of brands that are considered at a prior stage in the choice process, often portrayed as having its origins in the retrieval of information from memory” (Kuan-Yin & Yin-Chiech, 2010 P.82). By being able to share their stories, consumers gained the power of raising their voice against brands and altered the “power of balance” between them and the companies (Farshid, Ashrafi, Wallström, & Engeström, n.d.). Brands lost the monopoly of being the only authors of brand stories and this could easy dilute their brand identity of their companies (Gensler et al. 2013).

Additionally, social media environment gave rise to angry online consumers, which could now easily network together, criticize brands, and create chaos in a matter of hours. Ne-WOM (Negative Electronic Word of Mouth) can travel so much easier, faster and further that brands nowadays can be harmed irreparably (Mourdoukoutas & Siomkos, 2009). On top of that, hungry journalists could take advantage of intriguing negative critiques, writing online shareable articles and spreading even more those brand negative associations, for the sake of some more clicks and unique visitors in their pages (Fournier & Avery, 2011).

Brand managers found difficult to cope with such stories and comments, due to the fact that their online brand messages were considered to be inauthentic by social media users. Online consumers could now decide for themselves what are the values of each brand only by reviewing articles, comments, and consumer-generated stories that find within social media (Nadaraja, & Yazdanifard, n.d.).

United Airlines for example learned this in the harsh way… In 2008, Dave Caroll, a little know country musician and passenger of United Airlines, watched his $3500 guitar being violently thrown by the airline’s baggage handlers. When Caroll pointed it out the mistreatment of his baggage to the flight attendants, they simply ignored him and show no interest in helping him. As he expected, after the landing of his flight, he found his guitar smashed.

After arguing with United for about a year, and without getting a positive response for compensation, Caroll decided to write a series of songs (3) about the incident and upload them in Youtube. The title of the first video was “United Breaks Guitars” and after the first 12 days, the video managed to get over 2.3million views. In total, all of his three videos surpassed the immense number of 10million viewers. Additional exposure to this negative story for United, generated when LA Times, Daily Travel and other newspapers/magazines picked up the story and spread the word even more (Greenstein, 2009).

United Breaks Guitars Video Views

Still, only after the massive publicity of the video,  United airlines suddenly realized that they have to respond somehow and protect their brand.

Unfortunately, United continued missteping on its effort to stand back on its feet. When online users started to negatively comment on the company’s Twitter page, the person in charge for their Twitter account replied that the company is planning to use this “excellent” video for training purposes; and that they are now “touched” and already contacted Caroll, in order to make it up to him (Greenstein, 2009).

United Airlines Tweets After United Breaks Guitars Crisis

Of course these events had devastating results for the company and as a BBC report stated, three weeks after the video upload in Youtube, United Airlines stock dropped by 10% wiping $180millions off the brand’s value (Wilson, 2011)!

Just for the record, Caroll denied the compensation United offered him and instead suggested them to donate the amount to a charity organization of their choice.

So, what can be learned from this case, and how should brand managers deal with a similar social media crisis?

1)    Create a crisis plan before you need it.

Brand managers should not wait until they are in the middle of a crisis in order to work out the best possible solution. A well trained designated spokesperson should be responsible for all the responses throughout social media. A crisis management team should be formed beforehand, including people from all relevant departments such as Public Relations, Marketing, Human Resources etc. and come up with a protocol to follow in such occasions. The protocol should be pointing out possible scenarios to follow after identifying the weak points of the firm (Moffat, 2014). Contrary to United’s handling that was probably made in panic and by non-expert communicators.

2)    Be transparent and act fast

With social media’s environment that is prone to crisis and things can very easily get out of control, the last thing a brand manager wish, is to be caught lying about a certain incident. If contemporary brands want to be viewed as authentic and honest, they have no further choice than to adopt full disclosure. Therefore, if a problem exists, then they should acknowledge and apologize, assure consumers that corrective action is being taken and definitely not hide, ignore our delete consumers’ messages. United failed to correctly respond to the initial complaints, no apology was given, no transparency existed and probably no corrective actions were taken. Consumers are far more forgiving if brands are transparent and honest because if not, consumers can very easily lose their trust (Fournier & Avery, 2011; Moffat, 2014). As Passikoff, cited by Fournier & Avery, (2011, P. 198) says: “Today, reputation is your brand positioning minus what you’ve been caught doing”.

3)    Use social media to respond

Despite the fact that the escalation of the crisis took place on social media, it can also be the tool for putting the fire down. United’s best action would be to have its CEO give a genuine apology by making a video and posting it in the same channel (Youtube, in this case). It is the only option to reach the people that have already associated your brand with a negative incident and address directly to the unsatisfied customers that were part of the initial complaints (Mofat, 2014 ; Baer, 2015).

4)    Show your human side

As stated before, social media were made for humans and not brands. Since “you” are the party crasher, at least show your human side. Crisis might come due to a careless error, but most of the consumers are reasonable enough to realize that mistakes happen. Admitting a corporate fail by being sincere and speaking in a humanistic way, not corporate, can work as a pressure relief valve (Mofat, 2014; Baer, 2015). “Humanizing of brands generates more favorable consumer attitudes and thus improves brand performance”(Gensler et al. 2013). United at least did that right, indeed they spoke in a humanistic but unfortunately it contained the wrong content!

As it has been projected through this post, the new era of social media conceal many challenges for brand managers and it has been obvious that they should be cautious while using them. The structure of social media encourage communication between brands and consumers, for good or for bad, but brand managers have nothing to fear, if they will play the game right.

Study the environment, create a crisis plan, be transparent, be humane and use social media to your advantage.




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