BY SKYLIGHT INTELLIGENCE CORP.
Digital’s benefits to most businesses are widely recognized; however, failure to adopt digital gets significantly less attention. Perhaps because of the topic’s daunting takeaway: If your organization considers digital a distraction, a trend or an afterthought and fails to harness it in full, its reputation is in the crosshairs.
The United Airlines dragging incident of 2017 offers a textbook study of what’s at stake when the adoption of digital fails to keep pace with best practices and public expectation.
On Sunday, April 9, 2017, 69-year-old David Dao, a Kentucky physician, was arbitrarily selected to disembark his Louisville-bound flight due to overbooking. When he refused, insisting, “I have to see patients in the morning,” Chicago O’Hare International Airport security officers dragged him off in a bloody display captured on passengers’ smartphones.
Dao suffered a concussion, a broken nose and two lost teeth, but United Airlines’ woes had only just begun. By Monday morning, the video had gone viral, inciting worldwide outrage that continued in full swing for weeks. The public relations nightmare didn’t merely make United Airlines a punch line and punching bag for the better part of 2017; it resulted in a $250 million market value loss for the carrier.
So where exactly did things go awry? Was the culprit a breakdown in processes, technology, organization or strategy, or some combination of all four? The United Airlines incident offers several inroads for examining the risks that outdated practices pose to businesses’ reputations.
Processes. Accepted response times have shortened remarkably since the advent of digital. Now, a response that takes more than 24 hours – whether to a customer’s question on Twitter or a worldwide PR crisis – is considered high risk. Two hours is the maximum turnaround that digital leaders and advisors recommend given our current digital landscape.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz tweeted his first response to the dragging incident at 11:27 a.m. on Monday, April 10, a full 18 hours after Dao had been forcibly removed from Flight 3411.
The delay fanned fury, but it wasn’t Munoz’ only perceived offense. His failure to apologize to Dao affirmed what the public suspected: That United Airlines still saw the doctor as the problem. A letter that Munoz circulated internally, calling Dao “disruptive and belligerent,” was leaked to press the same day, reinforcing perceptions.
Awash in criticism, Munoz finally changed his tune, releasing a statement on Tuesday accepting full responsibility for the incident. But it was too little, too late. The CEO had already been found guilty in the court of public opinion, a fate that exemplifies a defining characteristic of successful digital management: The need for speed and sincerity.
So, can speed prove particularly challenging to large businesses accustomed to lengthy approval processes? The obvious answer is “yes.” Still, the takeaway stands:
Today, liability is more likely to stem from delayed response times and perceived indifference than from traditional corporate threats.
It’s a pivot from long-held standards that makes a strong case for prioritizing agility even at the expense of some degree of protection. Does your company’s processes hinder fast turn-arounds? If so, reputation could be on the line.
Technology. In the early 1990s, most businesses recognized that they need a website to remain relevant. More recently though, businesses are becoming increasingly aware that their website needs to be mobile-friendly and they need an active presence on at least one, if not multiple, social media channels given the preferences and its relevance to key stakeholder groups. Wendy’s and JetBlue are commonly the best examples of companies finding their voice on social media.
Unlike Wendy’s and JetBlue, United Airlines’ choices hinted at a limited grasp of technology’s ubiquity and power. In 2017, roughly three quarters of Americans owned smartphones capable of recording video. Add the fact that roughly 80 percent of Americans use social media, and in the instant Dr. Dao was dragged kicking and screaming in the presence of other passengers, United should have anticipated consequences.
We can say with some confidence that United underestimated technology. Whether it underutilized technology is a separate, more speculative matter, but some signs point toward yes. Insights offered by popular tracking and monitoring tools arm businesses with an elevated understanding of customers and online followers – an understanding that can alleviate and even preempt an incident and related consequences.
Did United have access to behavior-tracking technology? It’s unlikely given their hiring spree after the incident. The degree of damage endured by the airline in the wake of the dragging incident also indicates that any data generated was ineffective in crafting a comprehensive and correct response.
Organizational structure and roles. Maybe one day, we’ll know what happened behind closed doors at United Airlines on April 9 and in the critical days afterward. Until the unabridged stories are told or case studies completed, we can speculate that some sort of breakdown of communication transpired, perhaps reflecting outmoded organizational structures designed for (and within) eras past.
You’ve heard the phrase silos are falling, illustrating the trend toward departmental integration. Integrated workplaces benefit from cohesion and speed. Practically speaking, person A is more likely to know what person B is doing in an integrated setup, which can be valuable asset.
The connectivity between top-level leaders and a “social media” team likely eliminates a gap that threatens many businesses, wherein the person or team responsible for digital monitoring doesn’t have direct access to leadership in critical moments, rendering monitoring moot. When leadership works closely with social media teams, response times tighten and messaging gains consistency – an example of the effect organizational shifts can have on reputation management.
In addition, social media roles are often viewed as entry- or support-level; however, they need to be part of the larger marketing team with leaders that can connect to the business objectives of the top-level leaders.
Strategy. Organizations develop objectives as part of a larger strategy. Today more than ever, strategies need to include risk management, from scenario-planning to active consideration of what’s around the corner for businesses and their larger industries.
For example, some airlines like United have made a business decision to overbook flights. While they presumably have their reasons, an airline’s response to this matter needs to be weighed against the possibility of public fallout like what happened with Dr. Dao – fallout that’s expedited and compounded by today’s digital connectivity.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of strategy as related to reputation management: Every single objective developed as part of larger strategy needs to consider digital – both offensively (how it can help a business get ahead) and defensively (how it might bring a business down). Doing so puts power in the hands of businesses rather than in the hands of the masses, letting organization control conversations and, in turn, their larger public standing.
In the end, an airtight reputation relies heaving on a mindset that acknowledges digital for what it is: A force to be reckoned with today and for the foreseeable future, so it needs to factor heavily into all decision-making.