What do United Airlines and Silicon Valley VCs have in common?

Shel Holtz's picture

Social media has redefined crisis communication. That’s old news. No worthwhile crisis plan doesn’t account for the speed with which social media can accelerate and amplify the worst, most damaging messages about a crisis. Few companies are not prepared to respond immediately, even before the facts are known, to acknowledge they’re aware of the situation. After that, they know prolonged silences are intolerable; frequent updates—even if they just inform the public that you don’t have any new information—are the norm.

Recent events have cast a light on another social media factor: Emboldenment.

On this week’s For Immediate Release podcast, my guest co-host, David Spark, pointed to a June 30 New York Times article quoting several women about the culture of harassment in the tech startup world. The Katie Benner piece notes that “their stories came out slowly, even hesitantly, at first. Then in a rush.”

Venture Capitalists Outed for Sexual Misbehavior

The rush was prompted, at least in part, by women feeling emboldened to tell their own stories after reading the accounts shared by their peers, nearly always via social media channels. Susan J. Fowler’s account of harassment at Uber, posted to her blog on February 19, kicked the revelations into high gear. Several of the accounts have been posted to the publishing platform, Medium, like this one. (Medium has also been the forum for mea culpas by the VCs who have been called out, like Dave McClure’s, whose VC firm, 500 Hats, maintains its blog on Medium).

Accounting for emboldenment

Knowing that a few women taking a stand and sharing their stories would embolden more to share their stories should have led communicators at VC firms—assuming VC firms bother to employ communicators or PR agencies—to start asking, “Are there women out there with stories to tell about any of our people?” If so, encouraging an apology before they were named might have carried more weight than posting one afterward. (Not that an apology is by any means enough.) Any crisis communicator will tell you that it’s better to know about a looming crisis than be blindsided by one, and that revealing misbehavior proactively is better than doing it reactively.

United Dragging Incident

PR reps for VCs should have known about social media emboldenment from United Airlines. The saga of the passenger dragged off a flight by airport security when he refused to give up his seat to a member of a flight crew became a sensation largely because of passenger video shared online and picked up by the media. That story inspired a steady drumbeat of passenger horror stories; hardly a week passes without another passenger’s experience (a) posted to social media, (b) amplified on social media, (c) reported by the press, which leads to (d) more amplification on social media. (The latest—at least, the latest that I’m aware of—is about a woman forced to hold her 25-year-old child for an entire flight after buying a seat for him because United re-sold that seat. (Shirley Yamauchi said she was afraid to argue too much because she’s Asian, and she was well aware of the dragging incident, which involved an Asian man.)

Oh, wait. I just searched and there’s a more recent story. What the hell, United?

In the days before social media, it is unlikely any of the United Airlines stories would have made headlines. Even if the initial story had been reported, odds are none of the subsequent customer-service outrages would have earned coverage. With newspapers and broadcast pretty much the only channels available for telling such stories, and with limited time and space, what passenger could have called so much attention to their plight that a newspaper would devote four or five inches to it? And even if one did cover it, through what medium would the outrage spread, prompting others to pile on?

Amplification of a different kind

After the dragging incident, though, passengers who would have ordinarily just moved on—limiting their storytelling to family and friends—now felt emboldened to add their stories to the growing mistreatment chorus. Because publishers know these stories have legs online—and they have unlimited space in their online editions—they’re happy to cover them. And the cycle continues.

Too many companies continue to see a crisis as an isolated incident. United’s pattern of passenger treatment undoubtedly predates the dragging story, once that story erupted, it was the only incident the company needed to deal with. A reasonably smart United communicator would have known that, once that story was proliferating across social networks, it would be open season on other passengers’ stories: “We have to get the word out right now to everyone who deals with customers: Be extra nice, extra accommodating, go out of your way to deal with their problems.”

For all I know, a communicator proposed exactly that and was shot down by someone further up the food chain. And a short-term focus on customer service is not a solution; longer-term solutions are required. But stemming the flood of “here’s what happened to me” stories should be an immediate objective.

Just as communicators at Silicon Valley investment companies needed to find out if their VCs could be outed, communicators for other airlines should have taken steps to make sure their customer-facing staff didn’t shift the focus from United to them. So far, with the exception of a couple Delta incidents, the attention has remained squarely on United, which leads me to think some excellent communication has taken place at American, which has managed to stay above the fray.

Any crisis team needs to add emboldenment as a factor in their planning. In the meantime, we can expect the next United story or account of sexual misconduct by a VC in three, two, one…



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