HomeStandard StyleWhat United should have done when ‘that’ crisis exploded online

What United should have done when ‘that’ crisis exploded online

Unless you are an executive living under a rock, you must have heard, read or seen how United Airlines is deep in the throes of a monumental crisis. Its reputation and that of its CEO Oscar Munoz continues to be battered on all media platforms across the globe.

public relations with Lenox Mhlanga


The company’s stock has plummeted significantly losing almost a billion dollars in value. Munoz, has issued three apologies at the last count (including a tone-deaf one to staff) and there seems to be no end to the catastrophe.

All this because of a video shared on social media. It showed a passenger being dragged kicking and screaming from overbooked United Flight 3411 plane to make way for airline staff. Apart from the fact that ejecting 69-year-old Kentucky physician, David Dao alone was so wrong in many ways, it’s the way the airline reacted to the outrage and conflagration online.

CEOs, with the guidance of their public relations counsel, must be awake to the unique nature of potential crises that emerge online. It is folly to use the traditional approach for online crisis management.

The new requirements for dealing with crisis online have been codified into five core beliefs. The first core belief is that companies needed to prepare for threats that emerge through online social networks.

The second is on the requirement to respond to online crises expeditiously, within minutes, and not hours. It took Munoz a full 24 hours to issue a statement and it was defensive and full of corporate speak.

Business leaders should also appreciate the fact that online conversations aren’t bound by organisational bureaucracy. The time taken to approve responses must be cut down to the minimum.

According to James Donnelly, who leads crisis management at PR firm Ketchum, online social networks are great listening posts and should be monitored.

“There’s an obvious benefit for companies to stick a stethoscope to a computer monitor and listen to the online pulse. However, it’s easy to get carried away by taking every criticism to heart,” Donnelly warns.

Which should explain the attitude of a senior marketing official I engaged with recently. He was open as to admit that their strategy was “to ignore” online conversations that were toxic.

“They eventually go away,” she said nonchalantly. Yet, ignoring the ominous signs of a gathering online storm will not make it go away.

Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group proposes we apply “social-graphics”, a technique used to better understand specific behaviours of targeted customers. Co-author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, Li says that this approach can also apply to monitoring for emerging crises.

“It is more efficient to segment audiences and focus on the opinions that matter or those that can gain widespread traction,” she says.

Thus, when scrutiny begins to rise above the noise, ask what audience is prompting the attention and speed of this crisis. Is this just attention seeking or a lone-wolf blogger with an agenda?

Could it be a determined detractor, trying to bring attention to his or her own agenda by slinging an arrow at your company? Or is it outrage seeking support as in the United case.

These scenarios will no doubt sound familiar to brands that have had unsolicited attention on social media.

In Zimbabwe, the “Pfuko-Udiwo Maheu” crisis in 2015 that put food manufacturer Dairibord in the spotlight, easily comes to mind. It was a direct social media attack on a brand the company had invested a lot in both product development and marketing spend in a congested market.

That case study was the classic, “What not to do in an online crisis.” Dairibord made the mistake of responding to an online generated issue offline. In other words, it did not have a significant online presence to articulate to.

An analysis of whether this situation would negatively affect the online and offline audiences was out of the question. The Pfuko-Udiwo Maheu fire continued to rage online regardless. Dairibord could not determine which online audiences were important to their business in this regard.

The “online” code says that in a crisis, companies need to have an online voice that resonates with the marketplace. Dairibord learnt the hard way that corporate-speak and press releases are not the way to go on social networks.

In a crisis, social networks want to hear from an authentic voice, ideally from someone with institutional knowledge to share, or a perspective on if the company is handling the situation in a way that is consistent with its values.

It’s better to find those people within a company and give them the time and resources to communicate properly with these communities.
This may require an orientation or some coaching.

Unfortunately, some companies are hiring the young, hip and plugged-in, to be the direct interface, because they know the language of social media. This could be folly particularly where an asset as valuable as a company’s reputation is concerned.

The final point is on addressing a crisis with online audiences not being a one-time event. These are relationships that need to be built and nurtured over time.

While it would be wise to continue cultivating your online relationships long after you manage a crisis, this depends on, among other things, the type of crisis.

“If the crisis is a finite event, a product recall for example, then it’s possible to build special recall microsites, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages to disseminate information broadly,” Donnelly advises.

He says that the company has to be active on each of these new channels. But if the recall has been successful, then the company can choose to let those channels expire rather than awkwardly continuing these relationships.

In my personal experience I have seen how a crisis can be like surgery. It opens up a company’s innards to outside scrutiny. All of a sudden people who were uninterested with what you do want to know what you stand for, and if it matters to them at all.

It’s an opportunity for your online audiences to connect more with the brand. For all we know, that attention may fade with the crisis, but that few minutes of infamy could cause irreparable reputational damage.

“After they’ve managed a crisis, these same companies may feel compelled to keep connecting in ways that may do more harm than good for their reputations. Like people, organisations must first be true to their tendencies,” writes Donnelly.

Finally, a company’s comfort level regarding social networks is key. I have shown elsewhere that in Zimbabwe many organisations are uncomfortable at ‘being online.’ They continue to live by the adage that says, ‘what you don’t know will not hurt you.’

In this age where information technology is inescapably transforming the business landscape, it would be folly for a company to remain in a foxhole. With or without you, social conversations will continue around your brand 24/7.

The reality that we must live with is how much social media impacts on reputation. Classic crisis management strategy demands that we be prepared rather than caught unaware. To behave as if we are always in the media spotlight in our actions.

We can longer afford to live by that maxim, the more the landscape continues to change, the more it remains the same. The effect of social media on organisations is a story that continues to be written.

It’s a hard lesson that United Airlines continues to pick up as it lurches from crisis to crisis. Corporate arrogance has cost the airline dearly. The bottom line should give way to the factor human factor, understanding and appealing to the emotions generated by the crisis.

Lenox Mhlanga has more than 16 years experience as a communication specialist. He advises organisations in crisis communications and media relations. He has worked with the World Bank Group and lectured public relations at the National University of Science and Technology. He is an associate consultant at Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants and can be reached at

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