In Experience to Lead’s new program, Brace for Impact, we discuss large incidents (Big I’s) and small incidents (Little I’s).  US Airways’ Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson River was obviously a “Big I” and gained lots of media attention. In this experience, we identify the difference between Big I’s and Little I’s and how to avoid Little I’s becoming Big I’s.  If only United Airlines’ management team had attended this experience, we might have saved them a social media firestorm.  Unfortunately, they discovered how a Little I could become a catastrophe.

Social activist, Shannon Watts, started the firestorm, but it could’ve been anyone.  It was later revealed the passengers were “pass riders” courtesy of United employees.  These passengers fly with free or heavily discounted tickets and must follow a particular dress code.

Whether or not the airline should strictly enforce its dress code on young girls is debatable.  That’s not our primary concern here.  Rather, it’s the response from their management that was undeniably dreadful.

Here are three tips United should have considered before turning a small incident into a very, very Big I:

Who’s Wearing The Leggings?

Let’s think about this: if the questionably adorned subjects were adults would there have been a #leggingsgate?  Probably not.  But when a corporation targets anyone whether it be children, cute animals, or little old ladies, a PR nightmare is imminent.

That’s when management must look at the situation from the perspective of its customers.  Though the airline employees were simply doing their job, the optics when those singled out are young girls, it doesn’t paint a positive image.  United gave itself a serious hole to climb out of.

Solicit Advice, Don’t Marry It.

United practically copy and pasted corporate jargon in response to Watts and her barrage of tweets.  Management likely had its legal advisors craft this cold, tone-deaf reaction that showed absolutely no understanding or compassion from a customer service standpoint.

Legal departments, HR reps, and PR teams should certainly have a hold of management’s ear when something like this hits, but those making the final call have to respond appropriately without undermining those involved.  United did no such thing by throwing its employee handbook at the general public.

Create A Silver Lining.

United needed to create an opportunity from a minor incident that sparked national outrage.  And as you might guess…they did not.  They reacted with a new web page assuring paying customers are welcome to wear leggings on all flights.  Sure, that’s important to potential flyers when considering which airline they can comfortably travel with, but it failed to address the singular incident that caused the discussion in the first place.  And for thoughtful consumers, the image of three young girls being marched off a plane for wearing everyday leggings is hard to shake.

United would be well served to publicly apologize to the families involve, offer first-class travel to any destination, and pledge to review its policies.  But that doesn’t seem to be in this airline’s DNA.

To Review:

  • A series of tweets calling attention to United’s questionable dress code for “pass riders” = Little I.
  • Creating a reputation of a defiant, tone-deaf airline with no regard for women and children = Big I.
  • As a manager, you have to understand what can stifle a fire and what feeds it.