By John Williams and Ira Dember
Unless you have been hiding under a rock this past week, you know that United Airlines suffered a self-inflicted brand disaster on Sunday 4/9/17 for literally dragging a legally boarded passenger off a flight while passengers captured this debacle on smartphone videos.
Naturally, it went viral.
United claims the airline was within its rights to drag David Dao, a 69-year-old Kentucky physician, out of his seat and down the aisle as he went limp in protest, screamed and reportedly sustained a bloody nose and perhaps more serious injuries.
The legality of United’s action was debatable. Some legal experts interviewed on NPR said the standard airline “contract of carriage” does not address removing a passenger in such an instance.
But that’s entirely beside the point.
The point is about branding.
It was United who ultimately got bloodied. Even if the airline acted within its rights, it was instantly judged in the court of public opinion and pilloried for its behavior.
United or any major company spends hundreds of millions over a decades-long span to build value in its brand.
Lesson: if you ever find your business in a choice between being right, and being smart, choose smart.
Consider this scene from the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (Episode IV, 1977), in which the droid R2D2 plays animated holographic chess with Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon’s Wookiee copilot. R2 captures a game piece from Chewie, who gets upset.
C-3PO (to Chewbacca): He made a fair move. Screaming about it can’t help you.
Han Solo: Let him have it. It’s not wise to upset a Wookiee.
C-3PO: But sir. Nobody worries about upsetting a droid.
Solo: That’s ’cause a droid don’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose. Wookiees are known to do that.
C-3PO: I see your point, sir. I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the Wookiee win.
“Let the Wookiee win.” It’s become a catchphrase for making the wise choice, even if you are technically in the right.
United Airlines chose instead to let the public rip its arms from its corporate sockets and, in the process, destroy untold amounts of brand reputation and, potentially, shareholder value.
How has that played out? Amid the furor, the twitterverse has sparked with new tagline suggestions for United. A TV news show reported these gems:
BOARD AS A DOCTOR, LEAVE AS A PATIENT.
WE PUT THE HOSPITAL IN HOSPITALITY.
WE HAVE FIRST CLASS, BUSINESS CLASS, AND NO CLASS.
The show also spotlighted this spoof Southwest Airlines ad: “We beat the competition. Not you.”
The furor was made worse by United’s actual tagline, “Fly the friendly skies,” now seen by many people as bitterly ironic.
“Friendly skies” became synonymous with United over a 31-year span, from 1965 to 1996. The airline picked it up again in 2013 and has been running it ever since. This week, an NPR commentator mused that some folks might now view the brand as “Fly the hostile skies.”
Nearly everyone is giving United a well-deserved verbal spanking for its behavior, which not only wronged a passenger but damaged United’s valuable brand.
United’s tone-deaf initial public response made matters worse, essentially issuing bland defensive statements. Pundits have focused on this response as an example of what not to do when managing a crisis.
In our next post, we’ll show how United could have avoided a passenger confrontation and thus averted a crisis — instead of struggling to manage a bad situation the airline itself created.
In fact, United could have come out a hero and been celebrated instead of pilloried. How? Stay tuned.