A New Low: United Airlines -- More retail woes. Another giant-sized automobile recall. There's really only one brand story worth snarking about this week: United putting a new spin on "high-touch" customer service.
Within a matter of hours after the ugly incident, United's CEO started what should have been a mea-culpa apology tour off on the absolute wrong foot by getting defensive and issuing a statement insisting (correctly) that United was well within its right in ejecting the passenger over the airline's own error. Huge mistake: Who cares about the legal high ground when the Internet is ablaze with flames of your own making?!? Forty-eight hours later, the crisis communications team had him singing a far more apologetic and contrite tune.
Twenty-four hours after that, a series of nationwide customer satisfaction phone surveys kicked into high gear: United's frantic attempt at keeping its thuggish fingers on the pulse of just how bad it was getting. And it got -- and is still getting -- worse. The company lost more than a billion dollars in value within days of the incident as its stock (pardon the morbid aviation metaphor) took a nosedive. And the bleeding continues: when other airlines troll you online, you know it's bad. That's like a bunch of sewer rats calling out one of their own over his poor hygiene.
The reality is that the large "institutional-type" companies tend to survive even severe brand damage despite their worst episodes, nearly 100 percent of which are self-inflicted. Think: Audi (long ago), Volkswagen (still recent), BP (between the two), etc. It's a long list and, in a perverse way, a testament to at least having the mitigating instinct to navigate back to some core "north star" when the shit hits the fan. Or when the oil hits the pelican. Or when the car puts itself in gear.
And yet this time -- this particular offense -- hits home at a visceral level even though no fish, waterfowl or emission standards were killed. Whether you read about it, heard about it or saw it on video, the sense of personal violation is palpable... and really ups the ante for United in the court of public opinion, certainly as much as the lawsuit now being leveled by the doctor who was forcibly removed from his seat.
Will hundreds of millions spent on advertising be undone by a shortsighted unwillingness on the part of a relatively few United employees (aided and abetted by Chicago TSA henchmen) to go "above and beyond" an offer of $800 in travel vouchers for the seats it so desperately needed to fulfill its gauze-thin obligation to another flight in a different city?
Among frequent travelers, United is already held in sub-basement-level regard. Hard to see an elevator to the flight deck in the carrier's near- or short-term future. But long term? Expect to see United making repeated appearances in this column for years to come. Welcome to the intersection of "too big to fail" and "too tone-deaf to care."