United Airlines: A Case Study in Using Social Media to Raise Awareness and Facilitate Institutional Change

Brian E. Kinghorn

Brian E. Kinghorn

Brian E. Kinghorn, PhD
Marshall University

On April 10, 2017, a 69-year-old ticketed United Airlines passenger was forcibly removed from his seat by police/security officers and then dragged off the airplane when he refused to give up his seat to accommodate some airline employees.  The incident was captured on cellphone videos that were subsequently uploaded to social media and went viral. The public outrage and social media backlash surrounding this incident were astounding. The company lost over $250 million of its market value the next day.

The fact that this incident occurred on a United Airlines flight is somewhat surprising since this incident followed a string of social media fueled public relations nightmares for the airline. In 2009, after battling for a year to get them to fix his guitar that was damaged on a flight, Dave Carroll’s hit YouTube video United Breaks Guitars reportedly caused a 10% decrease in the company’s stock prices within four days. In the aftermath, the company called the video a “PR nightmare” and a “learning experience,” and they reached out to Mr. Carroll to make things right, but the damage had already been done.

Yet #UnitedBreaksGuitars did not prevent other public relations nightmares for the airline. Just two weeks before the “dragging incident” their PR team failed to get in front of the so-called “leggings incident” when a woman indignantly tweeted about two teen girls being banned from a United flight because they were wearing leggings. What the woman did not realize was that the girls were flying standby using free passes and their leggings were in violation of a dress code they had agreed to abide by. Although there have been heated debates about whether the dress code policy should exist, the airline’s responses to the incident was reasonable based on their current policies. The problem was that their PR team did not release the statements until after the incident had gone viral and become an uncontrolled digital firestorm.

In another PR disaster for the airline, on May 27, 2015, Sarah Blackwood, a singer in the band Walk Off The Earth was removed from a United flight operated SkyWest airlines because of her fussy baby who she claimed had already fallen asleep when the pilot turned the plane around. The incident gained significant momentum on social media via a YouTube video she posted of an interaction with a United employee back at the gate.

Two days later, on May 29th, Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, claimed to have experienced blatant discrimination by a flight attendant who refused to give her an unopened can of soda and proceeded to give the man next to her an unopened can of beer. When Ms. Tahera protested, she claimed that the flight attendant said “We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a WEAPON on the plane.” Ms. Ahmad’s Facebook post created a social media frenzy which resulted in an official apology from the airline on June 3, 2015. The flight attendant from the incident was also terminated.

In both cases, the women sought institutional change at United Airlines and its smaller operating airlines. They claimed they were not looking to get individuals fired, but were rather trying to get the airline to admit that there was harm, apologize, and then change their practices so other passengers would never have to experience the same humiliating experiences. As Ms. Ahmad told the Guardian, “This isn’t about me and a soda can. It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.” Additionally, both women received overwhelming positive support from people who heard their stories.

According to Anjana Susarla, Michigan State University, “incidents that not so long ago would have been relatively isolated are inflaming public sentiment at a breathtaking pace, catching companies wrong-footed and significantly raising the stakes of such missteps.” Susarla also noted that incidents like the ones I’ve noted in this article “illustrate the challenges for companies dealing with the fallout of bad publicity as social media amplifies both the reach and range of responses available to concerned individuals.” Historically speaking, corporations have had seemingly endless resources to successfully fight against legitimate customer or employee claims against them. But handheld devices and social media have allowed individuals to skip the bureaucratic red tape altogether and take their messages straight to customers and shareholders. As Jon Ronson stated, as a result of people effectively using social media for public shaming, the self-proclaimed “silenced majority suddenly [became] the ones with all the power.” In today’s digital world, a mob of angry customers united by a cause that goes viral on social media can be every bit as devastating as a well-aimed stone to the forehead of a giant. These social media firestorms add momentum to the empowering revolution of customers and employees confidently demanding to be heard and respected by organizations. Granted, customers and employees have always wanted respect and a voice, and they have certainly successfully facilitated institutional changes through strikes, boycotts, uphill legal battles, etc. But social media has exponentially magnified individuals’ abilities to organize, be heard, and significantly impact an organization’s bottom line to facilitate systemic institutional change.

To be fair, there are always two sides to a story, and there is probably more to each of these stories than the general public will ever know. However, these incidents suggest social media has become a powerful tool of the masses! Regardless of the “facts,” there are people who will use social media to take perceived social injustices to the public, especially when perpetuated against individuals by organizations. We must all, individuals and corporations alike, pay close attention and learn to adapt in this changing digital world.

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