How United Airlines Went Viral on Social Media [PR Crisis]

April 12, 2017 Social Influence 8 comments

Source of image

United Airlines is now one of the most Tweeted, Googled and Facebooked airline on social media.

It has gone viral in a spectacularly wrong way. And all for an “airline disaster” that you would never imagine.

In what must’ve been one of the worst PR disasters ever recorded for an airline, the news for United Airlines first broke on Monday night. Bloodied passenger David Dao, a 69 year old American-Vietnamese medical doctor, was shown on videos being assaulted and dragged by aviation security officers from his seat.

His crime? Refusing to volunteer to give up his seat for the airline crew on an overbooked flight.

His reason? He needed to attend to his patients the next day.

Dr Dao wasn’t the only one. Three other passengers on United Express Flight 3411 were forced to evacuate their seats. However, he was probably the only one deemed to be “disruptive and belligerent” by the airlines.

Apparently, this is legal according to Airline rules. Quoting from The Independent:

The captain is in charge of the aircraft. And if he or she decides that someone needs to be offloaded, that command has to be obeyed. From the moment that the unfortunate individual in this case said, “I’m staying put”, he became a disruptive passenger. He was disobeying the captain’s command. Officials were legally entitled to remove him, and they did so using plenty of physical force.

Incriminating Video Evidence

While United Airlines may be right legally speaking, they lost big time in the court of public opinion.

For a start, almost all the passengers on board that flight were on the side of Dr Dao. Many of them shot videos of the incident, providing strong evidence of what actually occurred that day.

Here’s a compilation of the passenger recorded videos of the incident for your viewing.

Over US$950 Million of Share Value Wiped Out

The aftermath of the incident was alarming. Hell hath no fury like an Internet audience enraged.

There were countless Facebook posts and comments calling to boycott the airlines, make it go bankrupt, sue it till it went bust, and sack the CEO Oscar Munoz.

Perhaps the last straw which broke the camel’s back was the impact of the crisis on United Airlines share price. At one stage, almost US$1 billion in market value was wiped out.

Courtesy of Yahoo! Finance

That’s probably just the beginning of United Airlines’ financial woes.

Apparently, Dr David Dao is set to sue United Airlines for all its worth, hiring two sets of lawyers to engage in a legal battle with the airline. The case looks like it is going to be a perfect media storm that will drag on for quite a bit.

Apologies Unaccepted

Sometimes, saying sorry isn’t enough. Especially if you are the CEO of an embattled airline trying to protect itself from legal action.

This was the first apology by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz following the incident. Have a read and let me know what you think.

Instead of acknowledging the injury which Dr Dao sustained, Munoz focused his apology on the “re-accommodating” issue.

To rub salt to the wound, an internal email which Munoz sent to his staff at United Airlines a few hours later was leaked to the media.

Here’s what it said:

Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville.

While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help.

Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.


Given the context of the incident, the email did not go down well with the public when it was reported by the media.

When United Airlines’ share prices nosedived (as shown above), Munoz issued a second apology. This read a lot better and he did sound contrite and sincere.

Courtesy of United Airlines

Unfortunately, Munoz’s more “heartfelt apology” came too little and too late. Comments on the Facebook post were mostly negative. The court of public opinion found his sincerity lacking and berated the airline further.

Courtesy of United Airlines Facebook page

The irony was that United CEO Oscar Munoz was named PR communicator of the year only last month! (This shows that perhaps not all awards are worth winning. But I digress.)

Racial Discrimination and Dirt Digging

Two new developments in the last couple of hours (yes its only been that long) have added fuel to the United Airlines fire.

The first were accusations that United Airlines practiced racial discrimination in its practices.

Numerous commentators have claimed that United Airlines dragged the passenger off the plane because he was Asian. This was an example of racial profiling by the airlines.

Apparently, this incident inflamed the Chinese media, with hundreds of millions of irate Chinese calling for a boycott. If not handled well, media commentators have calculated that United Airlines could lose up to 20 percent of its revenue from the China-US bound market (United is the largest US carrier in China.)

Courtesy of Channel News Asia

The other incident involved the Internet CSI team digging up stuff about Doctor Dao himself, including both positive and negative news about his family and his past.

Trolling and Memes

Naturally, any media incident this big is going to attract newsjackers and trolls.

One of the top trending hashtags on Twitter is the New United Airlines Motto hashtag, ie #NewUnitedAirlinesMotto. In case you are wondering, United Airlines current motto is to “Fly the Friendly Skies” (Yes, I know what you’re thinking.)

Here are a sample of the tweets that came about.

Courtesy of @osamanadeem

Courtesy of @nizam_lazim

Courtesy of @krispeck

That’s not all.

Rival airlines, particularly those from the Middle East, came up with their own trolling versions of tweets. Like this example from Royal Jordanian.

Courtesy of @royaljordanian

And this “friendly” video by Emirates…

Courtesy of CNN Money

How Did Virality Happen?

United Airlines’ problems is a prime example of a PR crisis exacerbated by the elements of virality.

As I’ve shared previously, any mitigating actions taken in a crisis has to be done swiftly and sincerely. Failure to do so could lead to severe consequences.

So how did virality occur in the United Airlines case?

#1 Social Currency

Taking a leaf from Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, I’ve identified that social currency was one of the reasons why people were sharing and spreading the news.

Social currency is the phenomenon whereby people are motivated to share something because of how it’ll make others think of them.

In this case, people were driven by two factors:

  • Remarkability: Nothing beats seeing a passenger being beaten up! It is so unbelievable that people just have to share it.
  • Advocacy: A large majority of the people who chanced upon the videos online was incited to lobby against United Airlines for their roguish treatment of a passenger.

#2 Strong Triggering Emotions

There were three emotions at play here – all of which are deemed to be highly contagious by Dr Berger.

  • Anger: This was highly evident in the case.
  • Awe: The videos shot were so unbelievable that people had to respond to it.
  • Amusement: This occurred later when the initial furore encouraged parody images and videos to be developed.

PS – this isn’t the first time United Airlines broke the news. Remember #UnitedBreaksGuitars?

Source of image

#3 Newsjacking

Also known as trendjacking, newsjacking is defined by David Meerman Scott as…

“..the process by which you inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real-time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself or your business.”

Often, this occurs just immediately after an incident first breaks the news. It is motivated by content creators and marketers seeking to “ride” on the explosion in searches and shares related to a specific topic. In this case, the United Airlines fiasco is just too big to ignore.

Here’s a chart showing how this happens (courtesy of David Meerman Scott).

#4 Storytelling

We are all enraptured by stories, and the classic case of Dr Dao versus United Airlines has all the elements of a strong narrative.

This fits the typical “David versus Goliath” archetype – pun unintended.

As the underdog, Dr Dao was bullied by the “800 pound gorilla” known as United Airlines. The fact that he is a 69-year-old bespectacled Asian doctor brutalised by brawny security officers makes the narrative all the more compelling.

To add spice to the mix, Internet vigilantes have introduced a “plot twist” to this narrative, unveiling elements of his past.

What Should United Airlines Do Next?

At this stage, the PR saga is still developing. We have already read about how Dr Dao intends to take legal action on the airline, even as United Airlines scrambles to offer compensation for aggrieved customers.

What would you do if you were the CEO of United Airlines?

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


  1. United Airlines may have a legal right to remove a passenger from a plane, but there is no right to assault him. I’d not be in any way astonished if Dr. Dao presses criminal charges against the airport security men who left him bloody and in need of medical attention. Because of the assault on Dr. Dao I passed yesterday on an inexpensive United flight for next week and instead booked one on American Air Lines.

    1. Agree with you on that. Assault is a truly terrible way to handle a paying passenger, and they need to do better (which I believe they are now). Thanks for standing up for what’s right!

  2. The entire fiasco seems to have arisen from broken processes. From allowing passengers to board instead of negotiating with them before boarding, to using extreme force that didn’t even seem warranted during removal of the passenger.

    It’s too late now and it’s all about damage control and setting things right. Broken processes should be fixed, review of unfair business practices such as the forced removal has to be made clear to public and at least a personal visit to Dr Dao. I’d think being a decent human being is what’s required at this point. Perhaps, this is a tall order for upper management behind the safe doors of his office in ivory tower especially in view of a lawsuit where they stand to lose even more. Even more so they will not admit liability.

    1. Yes, broken process is an issue in this case, like in many other organisations too. The problem with many CEOs sometimes is one of ego – they find that it is too much of a chore for them to personally be involved in apologising to an aggrieved party, or are afraid of legal liabilities. It happens here in Singapore too.

  3. Who is the author of this article? Despite the well-written content on this website, I am unable to use this particular page as a credible source.

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