5 Social Media Lessons for ASEAN Airlines from The United Saga

Most frequent fliers recognize that service quality among ASEAN airlines generally surpasses the service quality of U.S. Airlines. Nonetheless, there are several lessons we can take from the recent social media fiasco sparked by the shockingly abrasive service given to passengers in the U.S.

Following are five lessons that all ASEAN airlines should learn by heart to prevent themselves from a historical crisis like one of the largest airlines in the U.S.

Don’t underestimate the power of the community

Shortly after the gruesome video clip of a roughed-up passenger from the United Express Flight 3411 went viral, anger emerged and spread all over the world, especially in Asia. Joe Wong, a Chinese comedian, raised a petition allowing 2.6 million Weibo users to boycott United Airlines. More than 40,000 people stood united demanding the CEO’s resignation on Change.org. Even worse, many posted photos of their United membership cards cut in half. In Asia, where the incident had a profound impact, especially on the Chinese people, due to Asians’ high value of community, the situation calls for even greater discretion. They are people who can both raise you up and knock you down with just a simple story or a single trending hashtag.

Don’t ever talk back to the people

Instead of a sincere apology, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, defended the act of his staff and even accused the bloodied passenger of being “disruptive and belligerent.” Only after this did the CEO issue an official response, bluntly saying: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” The announcement obviously wasn’t received well with the public, particularly in Asia, where it is just plain unacceptable. As a result, the stock value of the mother enterprise United Continental Holdings went on landslide on April 11, costing the company over 1.4 billion dollars’ worth.

Respond promptly

Following the violent scandal, a series of United’s bad behaviors was brought up and pushed the airline even deeper into the globally-scaled sand pit.

Take JetBlue as an example: when the airline was hit with an unexpected incident causing the entire operation system to freeze for days, there were hundreds of flights canceled and hundreds of thousands of customers infuriated. The CEO was present everywhere the next day to show his repentance. JetBlue also issued the ‘Customer Bill of Rights’ which stated precisely the compensation rates for each possible case, including the case of overbooking like United Airlines. It is JetBlue’s honest and transparent approach to overcome difficulties that help the brand to survive through hard times.

Global enterprises, especially in Asia, must realize the crucial power that social media now holds against the life and death of a business, learning from this United’s case study, and further honor the spirit of “Customers are top priority.” Organizations should respond promptly and honestly to prevent further spread of negative opinions.

Right action at the right time

When the incident happened, United not only denied all responsibilities but also refused to compensate the victim. Not until the brand was met with a wave of boycotts from the public did they start trying to make up the loss. But it was in vain because it was too late.

The lesson here is that doing the right thing isn’t sufficient, you must do it timely. True, a scandal can be easily passed but how about a stained reputation?

Show sincerity!

Last but not least, if you want your business to succeed in Asia, keep in mind the word ‘sincerity’ and everything will go by smoothly. Asian people don’t value strong individuality so when they feel that you are genuinely sorry and are taking actions to compensate, they will be more than willing to forgive your past mistakes. You treat a person wrong, the whole nation will be against you; you acknowledge your mistakes, they will sympathize with you. There is a famous proverb that goes: “The ones who deny the consequences of their actions shall not be forgiven, but the ones who do shall be welcomed.”

By: Clāra Ly-Le, Managing Director of @EloQ Communications (formerly Vero IMC Vietnam). Clāra is a senior public relations consultant who has been involved in multiple national and regional PR campaigns in Vietnam. She is also a PhD candidate at Bond University, Australia. Her research interests include crisis management, intercultural communication, and new media communication.