No Such Thing As Bad Publicity? We'll See...

First there was Dave Carroll. Back in the spring of 2008, United Airlines broke his Taylor guitar -- and then rubbed salt in the wou by giving him the runaround in the customer service labyrinth. After he had, in his words, "chased their wild gooses" for far too long, he finally recorded a song about it in July 2009. And put it on YouTube. Where it received more than three million views. In its first week. Along with coverage in USA Today, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and, in the ultimate sign of true Internet fame, a Hitler "Downfall" parody. As of today the original music video has over 10 million views.

Southwest Airlines snickered at United for a while, but then got jealous of all the attention, so they took their own foray into the social media disastersphere, denying filmmaker Kevin Smith a seat for being too fat a year ago February. Smith promptly tweeted the extra-large pants off the incident, causing a rare moment of negativity for the normally beloved carrier.



And last week, Jetstar, Qantas' low-priced South Pacific little brother, denied boarding to two handicapped guys, saying they weren't allowed on the plane without a caregiver. They were Paralympians. World travelers. They had never had an incident on a plane, but the Jetstar staff turned them away at the gate.

This is the same airline, by the way, that made Paralympic champion Kurt Fearnley check his wheelchair back in 2009 -- an act he objected to by dragging himself around Brisbane airport and onto the plane with his hands.

In 2009, the year Carroll's video launched, United posted a significant improvement over the year prior, losing just $651 million as compared to more than $5 billion in 2008. As of June 2010, when Qantas last released financial information, Jetstar was profitable, more so than the previous year; so was Southwest, which continues to win accolades as one of America's most admired companies. So maybe these incidents don't make a whit of difference to the bottom line. After all, when you're dealing with Southwest's 88 million passengers a year, there's no way to please them all.

But surely, surely, this kind of bad publicity can't be good for any of them. It erodes customer confidence and loyalty. It builds resentment. It gets talked about, shared over coffee, written about by online pundits. Even if we continue to fly the carrier, it creates an environment on the verge of the negative tip: the slightest nudge will send us running to the competition.

Luckily, if you live down under as I do, the competition rocks. The Kiwi national carrier is Air New Zealand, easily as beloved as Southwest. They've taken customer service to an art form and are a case study in effective use of corporate social media. In addition to their regular Twitter accounts, they've got the @airpointsfairy Twitter account, who regularly grants wishes to followers. They've turned their in-flight safety videos into viral commercials; the latest, most awesome one stars Richard Simmons and has more than TWO MILLION views. Two million. Of a safety video.

If I have no choice, I'll fly United, and I probably won't be happy about it. But I delight in Air New Zealand. And I can't help but believe that, long-term, that kind of customer relationship is going to serve the first company poorly and the latter well.

Do you believe there's no such thing as bad publicity? Have an airline horror story to share? Touch base on Twitter or in the comments.

3 comments about "No Such Thing As Bad Publicity? We'll See...".
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  1. Bradley Jones from Brad Jones Media, April 22, 2011 at 10:16 a.m.

    United Airlines is scum for reneging on my earned 'loyalty' miles and I never hesitate to spread the bad publicity. Without so much as a warning UAL took away my miles for my lack of "activity". (I'm retired and fly much less than before) I will NEVER fly UAL again.

    Brad Jones
    Santa Fe

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 22, 2011 at 12:12 p.m.

    To requote "There's a million stories in the naked airlines and this is one of them" everytime there is another story related. The problem is the lack of competition because the extreme bars those who would desire and have the talent to enter the business are just about impossible to climb. Understandable. PR is relative. No competition without government intervention would be worse. Bad PR increases regulation for better service, not bad PR. No competition to get where you need to get with bad PR and you still use the service. PS: lack of activity can equal not using the credit card for 18 months and that's an easy fix. Sometimes, if one keeps track, they can get in touch with the PR folk - helps to keep their job - to tell them what will happen and they will stretch out your time limit for another couple of months.

  3. Rick Monihan from None, April 22, 2011 at 1:23 p.m.

    I've never liked United since they cancelled my miles without so much as a notification. They showed me emails that they'd "sent" I have no love for them at all.

    Which is sad, because when I did fly them, their service was always very good.

    As for publicity, I do believe that there is a point at which it becomes truly awful for you. The question is how you respond. Had these airlines done something to fix their problem, they could have turned a negative into a positive. There is nothing wrong with owning up to a mistake and making light of it.

    Southwest would have done well to invite Kevin Smith back and had him make some humorous commercials for them about his dilemma - and I'm sure he's the kind of person who would have done it if they'd apologized and approached him with the right offer.

    JetStar would've been wise to apologize, make a sizable donation to the Paralympics, and offer special seating to all future paralympians.

    These things may have happened - but if they did none of the firms made an effort to promote it. And if they didn't, then all they did was wallow in bad PR.

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