APEX Insight: The airline public relations crisis has become one of the defining themes of 2017. How an airline responds when things go wrong can determine whether an incident is shrugged off or turned into a PR emergency.

When United Airlines gate agents stopped two girls from boarding a flight in March because of their attire, #leggingsgate went viral. But this was just a prelude to a much bigger public relations crisis that would break two weeks later – one that saw the routine logistical procedure of bumping passengers on overbooked flights metastasize into a full-blown crisis, whereby the public saw United’s image in the media spiral out of control. On the other side of the Atlantic, British Airways suffered widespread negative press coverage when an IT contractor accidentally pulled the wrong plug at one of the airline’s data centers, also pulling the plug on the travel plans of some 75,000 travelers. It’s fair to say that the airline PR crisis has become one of the defining themes of 2017.

“When an airline acts human, they stand out and connect on a deeper level with their customers.”– Shashank Nigam, SimpliFlying

But where does an airline gaff stop and a PR nightmare begin? Shashank Nigam, founder and CEO of airline marketing strategy firm SimpliFlying, believes the problem stems from airlines acting as faceless corporate entities. “When an airline acts human, they stand out and connect on a deeper level with their customers,” he says.

Twelve days after footage of a United passenger being dragged out of his seat was posted on social media, American Airlines got caught in its own incident. A video released online showed a flight attendant aggressively snatching a stroller from a passenger. Yet, it didn’t cause anywhere near the same level of harm as the United incident. Nigam says that’s because there was one key difference: The fallout was contained because the CEO of American Airlines received a press statement on his desk for approval within seven minutes of the video going viral and it was released on Twitter within 20 minutes. “That statement communicated clearly, not just as an apology, but what was being done to address the situation, which was to upgrade the lady to first class for the rest of her journey. That is the type of process that can prevent a crisis from getting out of hand,” Nigam says.

United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, on the other hand, didn’t react to the viral video footage until 17 hours after it had been posted. When he did apologize, it was after the Chicago Tribune had already picked up on the story, says Richard Levick, chairman and CEO of Levick, a strategic communications and public affairs firm: “How can it be that in this digital age, the early warning system for executives and airlines is traditional media? That system has to be digital and social media.”

“I think it’s so helpful for other airlines to look at this and realize that even if you’ve got a great leader like Oscar Munoz … you can make a series of tragic errors that compound a problem and turn what was a small inconvenience into a global problem that seriously threatens your most significant expansion market,” Levick notes. In the case of United Airlines, which had been pursuing expansion in China for 30 years, the fact that the passenger being dragged was Chinese put the airline’s reputation in the market in jeopardy: 200 million people in China viewed the video that day.

“That top-down communication model we grew up with – it was a monologue. Now it’s a dialogue.” – Richard Levick, Levick

But in an age where anything can be live streamed, is social media making it easier for airlines to repair their reputations? Levick thinks so, but only once airlines understand how the information revolution is changing things. “That top-down communication model that we grew up with, that model that we’ve all existed with for 70 years, where you controlled the advertising, the public relations, political funding and lobbying, and really controlled the message – it was a monologue. Now it’s a dialogue,” he says. “Airlines are going to have to treat their customers as customers and they’re going to have to build allies who will say good things about them.”

A case in point is when film director Kevin Smith unleashed a Twitter tirade against Southwest Airlines in 2010 when he was removed from his flight because of his size. “Wanna tell me I’m too wide for the sky?” Smith posted on his Twitter account, which had 1.64 million followers at the time. The situation had the makings of a classic PR disaster were it not for the airline’s response: Southwest tweeted replies to Smith, including requests to communicate via direct messages, and wrote a blog post explaining the situation while explicitly apologizing. The situation played out in real time across the web, leading to a mass debate and social media users who came out in defense of the airline. “[Southwest’s] followers came to the rescue of the brand,” Nigam says.

“The airlines that win are the ones that recognize that externalities are to be dealt with wholeheartedly rather than be avoided.” – Shashank Nigam, SimpliFlying

But is the criticism directed toward airlines justified or is it part of a wider malaise in modern society? It’s a mix of both, Levick argues. “I think the challenge for companies is that there’s not the level of peacetime trust that used to exist. There’s no question that there are shorter fuses. Air travel has obviously become much less comfortable these last 20 years,” he says, explaining that other external factors such as 9/11 and increased air travel security have dramatically changed the experience of flying. Add the laptop bans for US and UK flights departing from certain airports in Muslim-majority countries, the Trump administration’s travel ban and Qatar’s diplomatic crisis that imposed flying restrictions on Qatar Airways and others – Nigam says 2017 has been an unpredictable year for the airline industry. “All of these impact airlines and their customers directly. The airlines that win are the ones that recognize that externalities are to be dealt with wholeheartedly rather than be avoided,” he says. “With the electronics ban, airlines dealt with it very differently. You had the likes of Emirates, which started bubble wrapping laptops within a couple of days and checking them into the cargo hold in very sturdy branded boxes, whereas other airlines struggled because they did not know how to react.”

“There is an absolute certainty that an airline will have a fundamental crisis such as dramatic delays or overbooking situations.” – Richard Levick, Levick

Levick argues that airlines that give people what they want are the ones that have been able to turn customers into allies. “When airlines do that, they build their trust bank, and as a result, customers, bloggers, social media and shareholders are willing to forgive their errors,” he says. “There is an absolute certainty that an airline will have a fundamental crisis such as dramatic delays or overbooking situations. If people have a high trust bank, feel that the airline really cares, that will provide a prophylactic that no airline could afford to be without.”

“Crisis Mode” was originally published in the 7.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Ari is the news editor at APEX Media.