Social Media #struggle: United’s Response & The Backlash

The story of a United Airlines passenger being dragged from his seat to make room for an airline employee on an already overbooked flight went viral Sunday night. This story has since become a publicity nightmare for United’s CEO and staff. On April 11th, one day after the incident, United CEO Oscar Munoz released the following statement: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

For many twitter users, the word “re-accommodate” stood out more than Munoz’s overall message.

In response to the incident, United Airlines has maintained its customer service presence on its social media accounts. Prior to Sunday their online tone was very simple and informative, whereas now their interactions are much more positive and caring, which is probably not a coincidence.

Again on Tuesday, United posted a statement on its website for its employees:

Dear Team,

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better.



In a last attempt to quiet an outraged public, Munoz publicly stated, “I continue to be disturbed by what happened. I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. We are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.” Munoz has pledged to look into the incident with a full public report by April 30, as well as a review into the company’s partnerships with law enforcement and reevaluating its policies on giving paying-customer seats to employees and overbooking strategy.

Chapter 4: What Comes Next?

Social Media #struggle: United & THE INCIDENT

On April 9th, a United Airlines flight choose to seat four employees last minute and in turn ‘re-accommodate’ four passengers. At this point, the passengers had already been checked-in and seated. As per protocol, they offered a $400 compensation, hotel for the night, and flight the next afternoon for any volunteer willing to leave the plane. When no one accepted this offer, United representatives upped the compensation offer to $800 but still received no takers.

At this point United decided to have a ‘computer algorithm’ randomly select four passengers to the leave the plane. One couple that was chosen begrudgingly left the plane but the third passenger selected didn’t want to get off the plane.

A man refused to leave the plane, claiming to be a doctor who needed to see patients in the morning. A security officer was called to escort him off the plane and escalated to manhandling the passenger by wrestling him out of his seat and dragging him down the aisle off the plane. During this process, the man’s head was smashed against an armrest and further bloodied.

What made this incident different than a possibly similar incident in the past was the availability of phone cameras and social media. No less than two passengers sitting nearby recorded the entire incident on their cameras and then posted to social medias. The virality of the incident and videos could not have existed 10 years ago. The video in question was shared on social media and led to a plethora of memes of sites such as Reddit, Imgur, and Tumblr. Even traditional media jumped on the United meme bandwagon to gain views from the viral subject.

The excess of evidence of the mishandling of the situation led to outrage at the canned PR jargon that the CEO of United spewed out in response.

Chapter 3: Click here to hear more about United’s response and the backlash that ensued.

Social Media #struggle: United, Take Your Turn

In a week full of social media and corporate snafus, it’s difficult to choose just one. As referenced in the graphic above, United is the winner for this week’s Social Media #struggle.

Chose your own adventure:

United’s Social Media Track Record


United’s Response and Community Backlash

What comes next for United?

Or Just Follow Along for the Ride.


United’s social media presence before the most recent overbooking incident seems fairly tame, referencing various destinations, travel themes, business, new planes added to their fleet, and employee recognition. In 2008, eons ago in social media terms, United faced the “United Breaks Guitars” fiasco. The music video made the Time’s top ten viral videos of 2009, and significantly damaged United’s image for years after the incident.

More recently, United faced another incident regarding leggings. Two women on employee passes wore leggings for their trip on March 26th. They were denied entrance to the plane. Passengers in plain view, most notably Shannon Watts, tweeted about the situation and it quickly experienced a viral effect.

United may need a lesson in corporate responses through social media: how to respond and whether to respond at all.

The next day, United released an official statement, “To our customers … your leggings are welcome!” Other airlines jumped in with their own responses to the incident.

United Airlines recent leggings incident lighted a media firestorm, but barely affected stock prices. Not to be easily forgotten, United went back for another round.

Chapter Two: The Incident

Social Media: Are We Living in the Twilight Zone?

Many of us remember the Twilight Zone as offering a glimpse into a society much like our own, but wherein something eerie casts a shadow over the seemingly pleasant facade of society.



Naturally, fans of the series were ecstatic when British television series announced it would be releasing a similar anthology series entitled Black Mirror 



The third season plunged right in with their debut episode “Nose Dive.” “Nose Dive,” tells the story of a young woman named Lacie living in a society very much like our own where individuals rate every interaction they have with one another on a five-star system simply by pointing it at them. One’s cumulative score is used to determine where you may live, what jobs you may have, and what transportation you have access to.



After viewing this episode I was struck by the realization that to a lesser extent we are already living in a society fueled by ratings and limited interactions. Have we fully entered the Twilight Zone? No, but we may be farther down the path than we realize.



In the wake of the United States Presidental election, there was a clamoring on Facebook of people unfriending those with dissenting political views. When those with contradictory views are removed you are left with a small contained bubble of individuals who all share the same beliefs and values. Individuals also self-select their communities based on the content they prefer to see and the content they don’t.


When there is no differentiation of opinions, and no questioning of the information being presented the result is an overwhelmingly strong subconscious desire to conform. What is created is a bubble of confirmation bias which is then fueled by the social media platform. Similarly to the tradition of the media deciding which information to convey and at what time, Facebook also decides which content each individual sees and when. Facebook perpetuates the confirmation bias through the use of targeted marketing based on the networks of like-minded individuals in a person’s profile.



Social media has captured immeasurable audience interest from users to non-users alike since the earliest sites were launched. In recent years a new Twilight Zone-esque trend has been rising, the trend of the pretty girl who makes money by posting pictures on Instagram.



Once upon a time, the majority of product and brand ambassadors were varying levels of celebrity. Post-Twilight Zone, all one needs in order to become an ambassador is a sizeable number of Instagram followers and the ability to take flattering and or sexy photos with said products.



The general logic behind these campaigns is simple to follow. How do you get your product a wider or more targetted audience? Give your product to a few people with sizeable Instagram followers and ask them to review your product. In an age where the new cool thing is to be authentic, brands recognize that an “average” girl may be able to better influence her peers than say, Selena Gomez.


On the surface, this logic is straightforward and seems like a reasonable avenue to increased sales, but what are the underlying implications?  In the new age of Instagram ambassadors, brands are relying on the fact that consumers are drawn to the authenticity of the ambassador, their popularity, and the idea that with enough work someday they could be in their shoes.



The paradox here is that brands are hinging their marketing plans on the authenticity of a platform which by societal design only showcases the rosy aspects of an “authentic” life. With everyone online and the ability to view anyone’s profile, there is a heightened desire to only put forth what and how you want the world to see you. With this level of ingenuity, how can any interactions on such a platform be judged as authentic?



In the digital age of social media, we have created a society where individuals are only part of like-minded groups, information is tailored to the individual based on what they want to see, and our “authentic” lives are nothing more than shadows behind popularity filters and the idea of a “perfect” life. When taken in this context, one must ask, are we living in the Twilight Zone already?