When cartoonists, satirists, comedians and politicians around the world wade in on a corporate blunder, it's time to raise the white flag.
And so it was for United Airlines which found itself embroiled in a global maelstrom after a video went viral showing a paying customer – a doctor – being brutally dragged off a plane, bloodied and concussed, because the airline had overbooked.
Twitter, Facebook and mainstream media erupted into shrill condemnation as the world watched in disbelief the disturbing scenes of a man being forcibly removed by police officers. The passenger wasn't drunk or abusive. He had paid for his ticket, was sitting in his seat when the airline realised it needed seats for crew members who needed to be in Louisville for a flight the following day.
United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz initially defended the policy of overbooking and its ruthless consequences in a letter to employees, saying he "emphatically" stood behind his employees.
He doubled down by calling the doctor "disruptive and belligerent". He blamed him because he had "defied" orders despite being "politely asked to deplane".
People can smell when they’re being spun or ignored and they’ll punish you for it. When companies think they are 15 per cent smarter than media and the public, they pretty quickly find out they’re not.Toby Ralph, strategic marketer.
That passenger, Dr David Dao, who had to go to hospital with a broken nose and two missing teeth, became the brunt of a smear campaign, with allegations that he was a stalker, had been suspended for a period over questionable prescriptions and so on.
It is not known who started the smear, but sadly, it is all too familiar.
It is Crisis Tactics 101 for companies in the crosshairs of a public scandal to dig in, blame the victim, take the stance of righteousness or downplay the issue. In some cases a smear campaign begins that detracts attention from the main game.
In the case of the United Airlines passenger, his brutal treatment is the focus and what it says about the culture of the airline.
The mishandling of the situation and the half-baked apology sent a clear message: United doesn't give a hoot about its customers. It puts profit before people. Sound familiar?
In Australia the financial services sector has been under a cloud over the very issue of breach of trust of its customers. They have been behaving badly. Yet most in the sector argue the problems happened in the past, were caused by a few rogue employees, and that compensation will be forthcoming. The problem is, this doesn't change the underlying behaviour and so the scandals keep happening.
In wage fraud cases, some of the organisations that have been exposed issue statements that as franchisors they have zero tolerance but then pass the blame – along with varying degrees of legal and moral responsibility – onto franchisees who directly employ the workers. In other words, they do their best to wash their corporate hands, hoping somehow the storm will pass and the franchisees will cop the fallout.
These organisations spend a fortune on spin doctors, dark arts specialists and crisis management advisers. Most believe it is in their best interests to sit tight and ride the scandal out. The premise is that the media cycle is fast and it will turn, and then it is business as usual.
But that isn't always the case. When the problems haven't been resolved they return in another form.
In United's case, instead of apologising for the passenger's injuries or expressing regret at the airline's policy of overbooking flights without adequate explanation to customers or adequate compensation, Munoz tried to defend the airline's actions. "I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers."
It was only when the stock lost almost $1 billion and social media was baying for Munoz's blood – or at least his resignation – that he attempted another apology. This time it wasn't wrapped in legalese, which made it more sincere. "I deeply apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way."
Toby Ralph, a strategic marketer who has worked on numerous high-profile crises, as well as advising presidents, a prime minister, the United Nations and worked on almost 50 elections around the world, describes the shenanigans at United as gross mismanagement, ambivalent service standards and lack of sensible management oversight.
"Everyone who has ever flown economy, or Fight Club as it's known on United, has unpleasant memories of crowded planes, crying babies, unpalatable food, rude staff and a thousand other inconveniences. United has now become the perfect target for such amorphous rage. In other words, people's anger may be more about themselves than the guy who got dragged off," he says.
Ralph provides a Reputation Stress Test service to boardrooms and corporate affairs departments that simulates attacks from activists and tests the readiness of organisations to deal with them.
He likens it to white hat hacking.
"It's just sensible risk management – and it makes for interesting board meetings too."
"People can smell when they're being spun or ignored and they'll punish you for it. When companies think they are 15 per cent smarter than media and the public, they pretty quickly find out they're not, but by then they've lost fortunes," he said.
For the airline, shrill condemnation turned into satire and black comedy with tweets such as "Board as a doctor, leave as a patient" or "If we can't seat you, we'll beat you" and "United in-flight entertainment: the hits keep coming."
It inspired comedian Jimmy Kimmel's spoof commercial posted on YouTube, which has attracted almost 1 million views as it opens with an air steward on a plane saying: "United Airlines, you do what we say, when we say and there won't be a problem. Capiche?"
The steward, starring down the barrel of the camera says: "If we say you fly, you fly. If not, tough s---."
It then splices in the footage of the doctor being dragged along the floor, and cuts back to a smiling air steward saying: "If there's a problem we will drag your arse off the plane. If you resist we will beat your face so badly you will be using your own face as a floatation device." It ends with "United Airlines F--- You."
Companies and their leaders need to realise that hollow apologies don't fool anyone. The Twittersphere has the perfect hashtag for these half-hearted attempts: #sorrynotsosorry.