“Young Lady, You Are Not Getting on the Plane Dressed Like This!”

You would think that – following the famous “United Breaks Guitars” PR disaster – United Airlines had invested heavily in social media and reputation management. This weekend’s Twitter meltdown showed that that is apparently not the case.

It all started with three tweets by Shannon Watts:

Watts then added:

Now, here is the thing: at this point nobody – aside from the people who were at the gate – actually knew what had happened. Is this even true? Nobody who wasn’t there knows, certainly not the social media team. However, rather than sending a soft answer, the United social media team decided to throw the rulebook at Watts:

Let’s take a moment to think about what would have been an appropriate answer by United. I would suggest something like this:

“Thx for getting in touch, Shannon. This seems a bit odd. Let us find out more and get back to you within the next three hours.”

Instead, quoting the Contract of Carriage led to this response:

At this stage, someone should have called someone higher up the food chain. Instead, they studiously repeated their tone-deaf response to everyone who had started to pay attention:

And Twitter exploded.

By now the issue had started to get the attention of newspapers, tv stations and online media and a United spokesperson clearly had her/his Sunday ruined. However, he/she at least thought to find out what was going on before responding.

Apparently, the girls (three in total) were children of different United employees and flying for free or a reduced fare and United’s rules for these ticket holders include stricter dress rules than for other passengers. Maybe, maybe having that information from the beginning rather than quoting the Contract of Carriage could have stopped this issue from getting out of control. But by now it was too late.

Implying a lack of “good taste for the local environment” might also not have been the best way to refer to the leggings worn by three children.

Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogen and Patricia Arquette have a combined Twitter following of about 16 million people.

United’s response also instantly triggered more ridicule:

Eventually, more people pitched in, including former and current airline industry employees and their dependents. Many of them said they knew that there were dress codes and that they had to follow them when flying on reduced/free tickets.

But you know what? That is not the point: the point is that this issue could have been defused or at least contained very easily if handled differently.

The lessons to learn from this are:

  • If you don’t have all the facts, promise to find out more and to get back within a reasonable time frame. Then do so!
  • Respond with empathy. Quoting Terms of Service or other legal documents does not make you seem friendly, caring or helpful.
  • Empower your social media staff to escalate an issue sooner rather than later.

About twelve hours after the start of this Twitter storm, United wrote a short piece for their website and pinned a tweet linking to it to their profile. Too little, too late.

What are your thoughts? Please leave them in the comments section below!