Airlines get the most flack from consumers when it comes to social media complaints- long lines, layovers, jet-lag and so on all add up to the stress for airline consumers- so when they’re unhappy, they let it be known. There are few airlines that have a positive reputation- many are more famously known for their bad press incidents.
United Airlines is an infamous case of bad social media crisis management (so famous that we studied this exact case in our courses)- in April 2017 a video was posted of a passenger being forcibly removed from the airline because…the airline overbooked its plane. Afterwards, CEO Oscar Munoz, posted an apologetic tweet to social media promising to reach out to the victim and resolve the situation. His wording, specifically apologizing that he had to “re-accommodate customers”, rubbed social media users the wrong way- and there was plenty of social media backlash following Munoz’ tweet.
However, almost immediately after Munoz released a letter to his employees that described the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” and essentially disagreed with public sentiment. Instead, he wrote in support of his employees actions. This email was of course, shared to the public, and the CEO was widely criticized as tone-deaf and lacking genuine compassion for what had occurred.
When looking from a crisis management perspective, the number one issue is the lack of transparency from the CEO. Tweeting that you are working to make things right and then saying the exact opposite and supporting your employees’ decisions shows you are just trying to handle the consequences of what happened, rather than actually trying to right wrongs. Furthermore, doubling down on your decisions when your consumers are telling you you’re in the wrong only proves that you have nothing to learn from the incident that occurred- and it would likely happen again. A proper social media crisis management plan involves having compassion, transparency, efficiency and most important, the ability to adapt. These are all great buzzwords, but what does it mean to actually put a social media crisis plan to action?
On the flip side, we can look to Southwest Airlines as our example of well managed social media crises. Southwest Airlines also happens to be one of the airline brands with a more positive sentiment – a result of proper social listening and a well structured customer experience.
In April of 2018, Flight 1380 of Southwest Airlines was on its way to Dallas from New York, when suddenly an engine failure caused shrapnel to break the window next to Jennifer Riordan who has sadly passed away. Immediately, the public was on social media posting about the incident as it occurred live. Those outside who watched the plane descend, and even passengers within were posting to social media and even live-streaming the incident. Thankfully, the plane was able to land in Philadelphia- but the first death to ever occur on a Southwest Flight was a heavy thing to handle.
During the entire incident, Southwest Airlines utilized its social listening to inform executives what was occurring. This helped kickoff the response plan in an efficient manner- and immediately after the plane landed CEO Gary Kelly issued a statement about the death of Jennifer Riordan.
After this statement, Southwest Airlines made visual changes to their website banner and profile picture to recognize the loss of life that occurred on their flight- and made sure to credit $1,000 to each passenger for their flights out of Philadelphia, as well as $5,000 for immediate needs such as counseling. Most importantly, Southwest Airlines made sure to halt all marketing deals, promotional messages, emails and commercials. As a result, Southwest had caused a $100 million loss in revenue- but ultimately proved that their dedication towards their customers and their travel experience was legitimate.
It would be easy to say that the right choices in this awful situation were all calculated to be the best financial decision for Southwest, and to not be so naive about the real intentions of these for-profit companies. However, this is an impossible argument to conclude, and in my opinion I believe that many companies fail to do the bare minimum when it comes to big crises like the death of a consumer. Southwest Airlines had at least in this case upheld its integrity and has proven that they were well prepared for incidents to happen- and I believe this shows that they at least care. Compared to United Airlines, Southwest was prompt with their response and did their best to deliver resolution to those who were affected. There isn’t anything that can compensate for the loss of a human life, but empathy goes a long way when it comes to the management of crises- no matter the size.
Edelman, Benjamin, and Jenny Sanford. “David Dao on United Airlines.” Harvard Business School Case 917-026, May 2017. (Revised March 2018.)
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Hatcliffe, M. (n.d.). What Southwest Airlines taught us about crisis management. An Issue and Crisis Management Platform. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.rockdovesolutions.com/blog/the-important-lessons-that-southwest-taught-us-about-the-new-rules-of-crisis-management
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