In the past, companies had complete control of their brand image and messaging since they were the ones communicating directly to their public and potential customers. Nowadays, with social media, brands are vulnerable to what the public at large says about them. One bad move can reach thousands of people on countless social media channels in a matter of seconds. Most of the time, the conversation about a brand is positive, especially if it’s on their own social media channel. Sometimes however, one negative comment can damage the reputation you have been working so hard for. Today, it is virtually impossible to control and influence what others say about your brand. Being part of the conversation is often the only thing you can do. The bottom line is that social media can damage a company’s reputation overnight which was demonstrated by United Airline’s current PR crisis.

On Monday April 10th, a United Airlines passenger was forcefully dragged and removed from an overbooked flight. Something that has the word ‘viral’ written all over it. Our Toronto social media marketing agency is going to show you how social media played an important role in this case.

The events were filmed and posted on both Twitter and Facebook and numerous other social media channels shortly after the occurrence. Various passengers tweeted about the incident and posted their videos on social media. In these videos, you can see how the passenger, a 69-year-old gentleman by the name of Dr. David Dao, refused the offer made by United Airlines for being “bumped” off the overbooked flight. In this process, his head hit the arm rest which caused his head to bleed and, it also looked as if he passed out while he was being dragged out. The images naturally caused a lot of anger and outrage with the public, who criticized the way the officers handled the situation. It is incredible the power that a smart phone and social media wields today in damaging a brand’s reputation in just a matter of seconds.

Chinese Community Reacts on Weibo

United Airlines was also trending on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. #UnitedForcesPassengerOffPlane was trending on Weibo and received more than 180 million engagements in just a couple of days. Since Dr. Dao was of Asian origin, many Weibo users felt the incident had a racist motive. Pictures of Chinese travelers cutting their mileage cards have been circling around the web ever since the event took place.

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United Airlines’ Response

The videos raised a lot of questions about how United Airlines handles their overbooked flights. In addition, United Airlines’ CEO originally released a lackluster response simply stating “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers”, which sounds pretty insensitive and memes have gone viral on Twitter under the hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos. An internal United Airlines e-mail blamed the victim for the brutal events. United Airlines also “apologized for the overbooking situation”, without mentioning anything about the horrible way the passenger was treated. Clearly, this was not the best example of how to handle a social media PR crisis.

Airlines do in fact have the legal right to bump passengers when a flight is overbooked. However, this case is a classic example of how, regardless of legalities, everything can go wrong in an instant and how social media can spread the news worldwide very quickly.

It is important to realize that proper damage prevention could have stopped further escalation. United Airlines actually changed its position and message 24 hours later, however, it was too late and the damage had already been done. This case clearly demonstrates how important it is for a company to have a proper online reputation management plan, regardless of the size of your business. Without a thorough social media and online PR plan, any event can turn into an international reputational disaster which can seriously harm a brand’s reputation, in some cases for good.

The countless comments, tweets, videos and shares have drawn a lot of attention to this topic and have undoubtedly damaged United Airlines’ reputation. The incident involving two girls wearing leggings a few weeks ago that were denied boarding a United Airlines plane also contributed to this. While United Airlines stock plummeted at first it recuperated thereafter but there is no denying that social media has caused their reputation to be severely damaged and no coherent online reputation PR plan was in effect. Initially this void in their online reputation strategy saw United Airlines lose almost $1 billion in their market value. It’s an expensive lesson to learn but easily avoidable if a company understands that we live in a different communications and media world today. is a Toronto based social marketing agency, specializing in online reputation management and social media management. Our team helps clients monitor and improve their online reputation and branding.

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