When the story broke about the appalling removal of Dr David Dao from the United Airlines flight, my first thought was “United breaks guitars“. If you missed that one, it was about a Canadian musician, Dave Carroll, who was travelling on United Airlines back in 2008. United Airlines broke his $3500 guitar. Having spent nine months fruitlessly trying to negotiate with the airline, Carroll finally tried to get their attention via a music video. At the time of writing, the original instance of this video (there are many other uploads) has been viewed over 17 million times. You would have thought that they would have learnt their lesson.

After videos of Dr Dao went viral on the internet and on mainstream news channels, the current CEO gave a grudging sort of apology followed by accusing Dr Dao of being belligerent. It took another attempt before there was a proper apology and now an offer to refund all the passengers on the flight. United are facing a lawsuit which I suspect will be very expensive.

So what could they have done to avoid adding more bad publicity to their online repertoire? In the first place, it would have been a better idea to find an alternative way to transport their staff other than assaulting a paying passenger who was already aboard the flight. If their staff were unable to resist the temptation to do this then it would have been better for the CEO to hold up his hands and admit they they were wrong. Continuing to deny their culpability wasn’t such a great plan.

And before you think that it’s just big brands who need to worry about the virality of bad publicity I can think of several local small businesses who have managed to reach main stream media through mishandling of customer service and subsequently social media. So, how to avoid a similar fate?

  • If you’re upset with a customer or have a problem (like overbooking) take a deep breath and think very carefully about what you do next.
  • Don’t dive in without considering the implications – think along the lines of ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ and if you don’t like the look that then come up with another solution.
  • You can frequently get what you want if you make a suitable offer of compensation. United hadn’t reached the ceiling of what they could offer – I bet they wish they had done now.
  • If you’re still pressing ahead with a bad decision and it all blows back on you then now is the time to be honest and admit you made a mistake. Denial will only feed the flames of social media.
  • And remember, even if it all dies down and everything continues as normal for now; the next time something happens all the past bad stuff will reappear with it and your reputation will sink a bit further.