UNITED AIRLINES’ VIRAL & BLOODY CRISIS MESS: How Moral Rights & Citizen Journalists Are Changing Everything About Crisis Management

It is a startling video. It shows police forcibly extracting a bloodied United Airlines passenger amid passenger screams after United overbooked and needed seats for airline employees. United could not have chosen a worse or more chilling response. Millions of people around the world have now watched the viral video. It shows visibly shaken passengers protesting the treatment of the ousted passenger – and, of course, you can see other passengers positioning their cell phone cameras and recording the horrific scene. Citizen journalists continue to change the rules of crisis management and are forcing organizations to rethink crisis response policies and protocol.

It is a very bad sign when members of the US Congress, the President’s Press Secretary and celebrities are chiming in and expressing their outrage about your crisis response, and that is now happening in the United Airlines debacle. The news headlines are very telling about United’s chosen crisis response: “United CEO Defends Actions,” or “United Defends… Says It Had a Right to Remove Passenger”. In a situation like this one, it is not a company’s legal rights that rule and reign – instead it is the “moral rights” that are supreme. Defending such actions in the face of an angry public is typically the sign of an ineffective crisis strategy. When emotions erupt like an angry volcano, defending can be a bad idea. That type of response can actually stoke the anger level. A recent study in Japan revealed that anger is the emotional “red line” that makes stories go viral – making them erupt and re-erupt.

In a situation like this one, it is not a

company’s legal rights that rule and reign –

instead it is the “moral rights” that are


Millions of angry people continue sharing and re-sharing the United video across FaceBook, Twitter and other social media sites. The bloodied passenger who was pummeled is of Asian descent and the video has gone viral in China, where United is currently the top U.S. carrier. So far, the video has attracted more than 160 million views on China’s equivalent of Twitter. A common online theme is people expressing outrage and saying they will no longer fly United. United Airlines has a crisis of trust and outrage on its hands; and it is all due United’s calloused response and the sensational nature of the video. The major news organizations keep pumping this story out over and over because it is an “any man’s story.” People look at the video and think, “That could be me!”

Anger is the emotional “red line” that makes

stories go viral.

Citizen journalists now break more news via social media than do the traditional media. With ever-shrinking staffs, traditional media welcomes these viral videos that give them access to news they never had before cell phone cameras! It is a trend that has upset the apple cart of crisis management. The traditional books written on effective crisis response typically list potential crises as things such as fraud, product tampering, product contamination, fires, explosions, loss of leadership, financial scandals, cyber security, etc. Today, more organizations are being forced to re-think their crisis response protocols in response to viral photos or videos taken by the public – or even taken by their own employees and contractors.

The following are some prime examples of other stories broken by citizen journalists that went viral when anger levels crashed over the dam of public perception:

1.  Kick Boxing a Dog Can Be Detrimental to Your Company & Career – Centerplate is a major sports catering company based in Connecticut. But, one day their CEO walked a dog for a friend and when the hotel elevator doors closed, he assumed he could privately kick the dog over and over without any consequence. But, someone leaked the elevator video and it went viral. At first, the company simply issued a statement saying the incident was a personal matter involving their executive and that it did not condone the mistreatment of animals. Centerplate also said it was reaching out to authorities to better understand what happened on the elevator. But, public anger over the video soon turned the incident into a full-fledged crisis. People protested at ballparks that Centerplate served, refused to eat the ballpark food and called for Centerplate’s contracts to be pulled. Ten days from the video going viral, Centerplate called their CEO “out” and he was fired. Centerplate’s Chairman of the Board later admitted that “the voices of the people” helped the company make its decision to oust their leader.

2.  Give Me That Parking Spot – or I’ll Pepper Spray You – China is an important market for German automaker Daimler. It is the world’s largest automotive market, so it did not take long for Daimler to have a crisis on its hands when a top executive got into an altercation over a parking spot in an upscale Beijing neighborhood last fall. A post quickly circulated across Chinese social media alleging the Daimler executive pepper sprayed onlookers who confronted him about his dispute over the parking spot. Multiple witnesses said the executive stated that all Chinese were “bastards”. That sent the anger levels soaring and within a week Daimler fired the executive, issued an apology, saying what happened was “detrimental to the standing of our company, unbecoming of a manager of our brand and prejudicial to our good name.”

3.  Can I Have a Little More Sauce on that Taco? – A Yum! Brands, Taco Bell executive was out for a night of drinking and partying in Newport Beach, California when he got into an altercation with an Uber driver. Many Uber drivers have signs posted by their Go Pro cameras that are positioned near the rear view mirror. The signs put passengers on notice that they are being recorded. (In states like California, you must notify people that a recording is taking place.) The video of the executive viciously beating on the driver quickly went viral. Within hours, Taco Bell became the focus of public outrage. The company’s crisis response protocol was simple: the executive was promptly fired and they issued a statement saying it was clear he could no longer work for them. Their spokesperson also stated they offered and encouraged the executive to seek professional help.

These three examples were not witnessed by a plane full of cell phone camera carrying passengers, yet they all have common denominators: Citizen journalists broke the news, public anger erupted quickly and the posts went viral. It will be interesting to see how this United Airlines crisis plays out. Today, United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, tried to soften his initial “legal” response, but an internal email was also leaked, revealing Munoz still defending the crew’s actions and calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent”. Learning point here: Internal leaks are becoming more common, showing a company’s “real” response, so make sure your public response is genuine. Financial experts say that despite current public anger levels, the lack of airline competition in the US will most likely cushion United on the domestic front, but it could be a very different picture in Asia and other world markets where United Airlines has to compete for customers. But, a financial hit is only one of the scars left over from a failed crisis response, and United Airlines could suffer in numerous other ways for years to come.

When moral law is violated – emotions rule!

Will United Airlines continue defending its actions and response protocol? Or, will United join the bigger perspective of the public, public officials, their customers and all potential customers? Companies are often blinded by their self-perspective and receive counsel from groups that do not understand human behavior or the roles of emotions. At the moment, United Airlines does not appear to understand that when emotions are high, emotions trump data, policies, protocols and sometimes even legalities. Many times emotions win. When moral law is violated – emotions rule!