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United Incident Highlights Power of Social Media…for HR

United Incident Highlights Power of Social Media…for HR

The now-infamous incident when United Airlines roughed up a passenger on Flight 3411 concluded with the acceptance of a settlement by the injured party. But the settlement is by no means the end of the story.

There are few people with access to the internet who are not familiar with the shocking treatment of Dr. David Dao when he and his wife were randomly chosen to lose their seats after boarding.  When Dr. Dao objected, he was dragged from the airplane, and suffered considerable injury.

The incident, mishandled from the start by United CEO Oscar Munoz, led to public and private outrage, and serves as a strong reminder of the power of missteps in the age of social media.

While the incident is only the latest caught-on-viral-video moment, it is a watershed moment for companies who do not want to learn the hard way, like United, about the power of public opinion.

Social media and HR—what’s the connection? 

A piece in the New York Times discusses the reaction of companies to the potential exposure of brand vulnerabilities in real-time on the internet.  While United has gone public with its plan to straighten up and fly right, other companies are revisiting company-wide protocols.

As noted by the Times, the United video, taken by a passenger, has been reposted on Twitter more than 170,000 times, and the video has rocketed all over news websites and other social media outlets.  The take-home message here is that United is paying dearly for its brutality—both on the airplane and in Mr. Munoz’s initial attempt to blame the victim.

Instead of a momentary mistake that passes, the incident has already become part of United’s brand.  Other companies have been targeted for boycott depending on the perception of their political leanings.  Never has public profile been as important as now, when consumer opinion drives market share.  Notes Leslie Gaines-Ross, a strategist at the public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, “One tweet, just one dangerous tweet, can really impact your share price.”

In addition to share price, an unfortunate social media or other incidents could impact the morale of your workforce and the desirability of your firm in the eyes of future job applicants.

Take charge and tend your company profile

While it is easy in hindsight to say, “What was he thinking?” when the United CEO tried to blame the unfortunate passenger in this incident, his unwitting comment more likely stemmed from a lack of understanding of the facts on the ground.

HR is ideally situated to respond in a crises situation to gather and provide facts, assess damage within the company, and provide strategic assistance to crises managers.  Everybody makes mistakes; the question is only which ones will go viral?

Using HR to avoid and respond to a public relations crisis involves the following:

  • Training: Inward and outward facing customer service training is a key responsibility of HR.  Ensuring employees and customers or clients are treated respectfully is essential to sales—and the recruiting reputation of the company.
  • Social media: Every company needs to monitor their brand presence on the internet in terms of mentions, problems, and response.  The days of blowing off a complaint on social media are over.  It is important for HR, and crises managers, to understand and respond quickly to those complaints most likely to become amplified on social media, and evaluate which will naturally fade.  Confusion with a customer order is not likely to last, but bare-knuckled brutality on an airplane is going to catch a lot of attention.
  • Communication: HR is uniquely positioned to provide appropriate messaging to the company workforce in case they are approached by media.  Again, training and rapid response are essential.

United has offered the corporate world a heads-up in what not to do.  The airline responded late, and poorly—and they are paying for it.  Make sure you have a plan in place to handle bad publicity.  More importantly?  Put in place the training, communications, and oversight to ensure these types of incidents do not happen in the first place.

Suggested Reading:

Employee Reputation Management: What Does It Entail?

Get Attention With Social Media Marketing

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