Flying to Friendlier Skies: A Warning for United Airlines, Business and Politicians in a Populist World

Scott SobelScott Sobel, M.A. Media Psychology, Senior Strategy and Communications Executive, Kglobal

A famous hockey player was once asked why he was so good? He answered that he skates to where the puck is going and not to where it has been. The commercial airline carriers should be skating to where the puck is going in customer service and public perception in this populist world. U.S. voters decided to shake-up politics by electing a political novice Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump gave a real-life voice to the “I’m-mad-as-hell-and-not–going-to-take-it-anymore” threat from the iconic movie Broadcast News. Now travelers are rallying around the same populist sentiments and voting with their pocket-books after the United Airlines’ PR debacle. United’s stocks are on a roller coaster ride and not in a good way. United Airlines and other airline carriers aren’t the only businesses and stakeholders who should take heed.

United is super-focused on day-to-day reputational survival. The carrier is digging its way out of the PR mess following the viral video of the United passenger being forcibly removed from an over-booked flight last week and the shockingly tone-deaf United CEO’s response to the initial reports. United’s various corporate teams are coping with myriad legal, marketing, internal and external reputational and otherwise conundrums.

It is not too early to digest why there has been such a whip-like backlash to this and other recent consumer abuse events and how it’s time to skate to where the puck is going in the commercial airline business and, indeed, all business and certainly politics. Of course, the continued explosion of social media and playing the disturbing video of the United passenger’s ignominious removal from the jet is a primary irritant causing distress but there is a bigger, underlying reason that the United incident has inflamed such a sensitive public nerve. Consumers, voters, everyone is sick and tired of being ignored, abused by big business and big government. We are collectively feeling more and more minimized and discounted by the powers that be.

When any of us feels bullied and abused what are the expected human responses? We can curl-up into a fetal position and just take the abuse or run away but it is not human nature to take punishment for an interminable amount of time. Our body’s primal Limbic System kicks-in at a point when we feel at the very precipice of extreme danger. We unconsciously shift to a fight-or-flight mode. In the cases of voters and now airline and other business consumers, it’s obvious that the collective “we” are not going to curl-up take it anymore.

When we are wronged these days, we are less likely to be quiet and not fight back. We fight back with our ballots, our patronage and scream at our attackers with a resounding voice that is amplified by social and other media megaphones.

There is a powerful meme that has also gone viral online. The photo-shopped image depicts Trumpian press secretary Sean Spicer in a United Airlines uniform holding a can of Pepsi. Spicer is the notorious poster boy for the definition of faux pas since making the disastrous and mistaken references to Hitler and poison gas. Pepsi is being pilloried following an ill-advised commercial that trivialized diversity and the true meaning of protests. The meme captures all the major food groups of how to tick-off the public these days and back them into a fight-or-flight corner.

United’s PR mess is just the last straw of a metastasizing hay bale of consumer revolt against big business, big politics, big anything that dehumanizes us all. Beware big anything! Prepare for a more tone-aware future of consumerism or don’t be surprised when your captive audience decides to punish you with a change of loyalty, flying away to competitors, populist alternatives … flying away in search of friendlier skies. We are looking for old brands that hear well us or new brands that hear us better.

About the Author: Scott Sobel is Senior Strategy and Communications Executive at Kglobal, a Washington, DC-based full-service communications firm that influences public policy, increases market share + builds awareness for our commercial and federal clients. He counsels some of the world’s best-known aviation corporations and is also a former in-house corporate public relations practitioner; major market and TV network police and investigative journalist and a media psychologist.;