My take: United we fail—How to avoid a PR nightmare

Home Editorials My take: United we fail—How to avoid a PR nightmare

April 10/17, 2017: Volume 31, Issue 22

By Steven Feldman

By now, unless you’ve been asleep under a rock for the past two weeks or on a year-long mission to Mars, you’re well aware of the situation involving the passenger on United Airlines who chose not to “voluntarily” give up his seat that led to a PR nightmare for the airline. Now, I could easily provide some entertainment here and offer my views on the situation, but instead I will make better use of this space and discuss how we all can learn from the incident. This is a text-book lesson about how social media can impact your business.

Yes, this was a customer service nightmare. And odds are if Joe’s Flooring screws up with a customer it won’t make the “Nightly News” or front page of the daily tabloid. However, it could wind up on Yelp or, worse, that customer might tell 20 of her friends about her negative experience. And those friends will tell their friends. In some ways, that could be worse for you than the United Airlines fiasco.

We live in a world where the Internet can be your best friend or worst enemy. A website such as can be set up and operational in about an hour. In this social media age, nothing stays in Vegas anymore.

Doing the right thing for your customers is more important than ever. Information now travels at the speed of the Internet. Sadly, bad news seems to travel faster—and farther—than good news.

The way to counter an unhappy customer’s one-star rating is by having 10 five-star ratings already in place. That’s why it is so important to earn the positive reviews from your customers. Always strive to deliver exceptional service and high-quality products. Turn your customers into raving fans. Use that base of support to get positive reviews on social media sites. Next, encourage them to share those positive reviews with others.

Building an excellent reputation is a process; it’s not a single event. An excellent reputation is the result of many positive actions over a period of time.

So what can you learn from the mistakes United Airlines and its CEO, Oscar Munoz, made?

  1. In the aftermath, corporate spokespeople resorted to an overly legalistic response. “Airline employees followed proper procedures” as if a bloodied passenger being dragged off an airplane was a desirable outcome. When you fail to acknowledge your mistakes, it’s not going to go well. Just ask Wells Fargo.
  2. They blamed the victim. “He was asked politely to relinquish his seat before force was used.” Don’t place blame. When you play the blame game, you lose. Mistakes turn to failures when you start placing blame. You must take ownership of the problem.
  3. Rather than quickly acknowledging its mistakes and working aggressively to limit the damage, United hid behind an ongoing internal and law enforcement investigation.
  4. Passengers and aviation experts, not United itself, defined what happened. Munoz called the incident upsetting, but only apologized for “the overbook situation.” A good starting point is a more sincere, heartfelt apology. The key thing to remember is when you have a customer service issue, the story is NOT what you make it. It’s what the customer makes it. The story isn’t yours anymore. You have to come up with a solution as quickly as you can in order to repair the trust of the people who still have some loyalty to you.

*       *       *

I spent a couple of days earlier this month at the National Wood Flooring Association Expo in Phoenix. Michael Martin and his team deserve kudos for putting on another great event. It’s obvious why this conference constantly makes the 50 Fastest Growing Trade Show list from Trade Show magazine.

However, and this is a big however, Martin and the NWFA team must be called out for starting their show on the first day/second night of Passover. I’m sure some people didn’t make the trip or came a day late because of the scheduling. Only once had I seen this happen before—at a Haines Summit about five years ago. Then CEO Bruce Zwicker apologized profusely when he realized the oversight.

I know show dates are not easy to come by. And I realize you have to book well in advance to guarantee the venue. I also know Passover can be mid-March one year and late April the next. But it is incumbent on an organization to be aware of these things. It’s a big no-no. You wouldn’t start a show on Easter Sunday, would you?

So to the NWFA and Martin, congrats on another great show. But I will be sending the group a 10-year calendar in the mail for future reference.


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