United’s CEO Fails to Understand the Power Shift brought on by Social Media

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By now everyone has seen the despicable way a United Airlines passenger was treated, forcibly being removed from a plane to release his seat to another passenger. I personally find the whole situation appalling but that is not what I want to discuss now. I want to talk about the way United’s CEO handled the situation, and how it clearly demonstrates a failure to understand how social media has shifted power from the few to the many.

Imagine if this situation had happened 20 years ago, before a world where social media was ingrained in our lives. Even if people on the plane had been able to take pictures or record video, what choices did they have to share them? The result would have been that only a handful of people would have heard the story. The CEO and executives in turn, would have also had a lot of power to control the message, and probably would have been able to get away with this without losing several million dollars in market valuation due to people’s outrage around the world.

But in fact what happened was that within minutes of this event, people around the world were seeing video and pictures of this physical assault, and people were waiting for, or in fact, expecting a statement from United’s leadership. So after the first failure at managing the overbooking situation, came the second: the CEO’s response.

  1. He apologizes for “re-accommodating” a passenger, assuming that would be the end of the history
  2. He proceeds to blame the passenger accusing him of being belligerent and indicating it is important to find out why “the passenger acted the way he did”. He also doubles down on congratulating his employees for a job well done. Tone deaf much?
  3. After losing almost a $1B in valuation at some point during the day he finally comes out with the statement he should have issued from the beginning stating “He is sorry. This shouldn’t have happened, and they will take measures for this not to happen again”.

Lesson to learn from this event? Corporations – and their leaders – cannot get away with a lot of the things they could have gotten away with in the past, and we have social media platforms to thank for that. Ideally, business leaders would care about their clients and their business, but even if as a leader truly in your heart you don’t care and your first reaction is to say “Not our fault. We did everything by the book”, know that most likely that statement is only going to amplify existing outrage.

Yes, you may think it is possible to do it seeing how some politicians get away with so much gaslighting these days, but they have something you don’t, and that is followers willing to be gaslighted because they are blinded by their passion for a political party. More likely than not your clients and others don’t have that level of passion for your business.

So next time something like this happens…. Stay away from the temptation to blame the victim and address the situation the right way, which includes any combination of:

  • We are sorry
  • The buck stops here
  • We are investigating
  • We are taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again

Don’t forget: social media has shifted the power from the few to the many.

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