Hurricane Irma Spins PR Crisis

Earlier this year, United Airlines incurred the wrath of people all over the world after videos that depicted a security officer dragging an unconscious passenger off a plane went viral. The severity of the crisis doubled following the seemingly callous and defensive response by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, who expressed no immediate concern for the passenger who was forcibly removed from the flight after he refused to give up his seat for compensation.  

Although it is within the airline’s legal right to involuntarily boot people off an overbooked flight, the security officer’s seemingly excessive use of physical force ignited harsh criticism and anger from people online who bombarded United Airlines’ official Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

This accident turned United Airlines into a crisis management case study about how not to act during a public relations emergency. Since April, the media have increased coverage of airline-related news, curious if any other airline stumbles into a similar disaster.

On Sept 5, people thought that moment had come after several Twitter users posted screenshots of their ticket purchases online, which showed huge price hikes for flights leaving Florida. Immediately, people criticized a handful of airlines for raising prices by about 200 to 600 percent for those fleeing Florida before it was hit by Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane.

One specific tweet generated 40,000 retweets and 58,000 likes. 

The viral tweet made Delta look uncaring and greedy, pushing them to the edge of a full-blown public relations crisis. However, there are several parts of this story that are important to note. First, the screenshot that was originally posted by Twitter user @LeighDow displayed an algorithm error that was promptly fixed after the airline was made aware of the mistake, which they claim took place before @LeighDow ever posted their tweet at 12:35 p.m. that day. Second, Delta reached out within two hour after the tweet was published and helped @LeighDow resolve the issue.

According to Delta, and other airline representatives, ticket prices automatically fluctuate according to basic laws of supply and demand. If more people express interest in traveling during a certain time or season, the ticket prices automatically increase, but the algorithm that adjusts prices does not recognize when the increase in demand is caused by a natural disaster, so it must be manually corrected to reflect more reasonable prices.

Delta and other airlines/traveling companies were quick to correct the algorithm once the issue was brought to their attention and made considerable strides to accommodate people escaping Hurricane Irma.         

However, the story does not end there. Because the original tweet had already gone viral and continued to spread false information about Delta, tarnishing its good image. In an effort to counteract the increase in negative sentiment toward airlines, Delta, JetBlu and American Airlines promoted capped prices for flights—some as low as $99—and a rise in seat availability/flights leaving Florida.  

Delta, in particular, announced that it would not charge more than $399 for flights to/from southern Florida and the Caribbean, including first-class tickets.

Despite each airline’s strong and admirable efforts to avoid another United Airlines-sized crisis, this social media uproar showed the tricky side of public relations and raised some important questions: How can public relations professionals address the spread of misleading information? Does Delta deserve the negative publicity?

One person’s response to @LeighDow’s tweet, summaries the issue nicely.

This entry was posted in UStrategies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.