A Deeper Message in a Corporate Screwup

Yesterday, over on Facebook, I posted a link to a friend’s post on the United Passenger Ejection Kerfuffle™, noting that it was “a good examination of the recent United kerfuffle — demonstrating yet again why what you read on a social media snippet-of-outrage(tm) is often not the full story in context.” There were loads of responses, and the debate devolved into everyone pointing out how United had screwed up, how the cops had screwed up, how the airline industry had screwed up, and how it was all Trump’s fault. Well, I made that last bit up, but wouldn’t you :-).

Seriously, however, everyone missed what — to me — was the most important point: A cell phone video is not news. The outrage here — much justified — was mostly generated without knowledge of the full context. That’s not journalism. Journalism investigates the story, attempts to get all sides. Journalism isn’t outrage shared on social media, which often gets facts wrong and rapidly descends into hype and hyperbole.

Contrast the social media outrage with the LA Times Business article on the subject. The Times (or more properly, its corporate sibling the Chicago Tribune) investigates the story. It looks into the full background of what created the situation: an overbooked plane, the need to move airline personnel, the way the contract of carriage works. It looks at how the airline responded. It shows the video wasn’t the whole story, and there was plenty of blame to go around. United (more properly, the less experienced United Express operator), feeling intense time pressure to get its plane and crew in the air,  screwed up the procedure to entice volunteers, randomly select passengers, and to do this all before anyone boarded the aircraft. United (the corporate side) completely bungled the PR response. The Chicago PD, demonstrating the tact they learned at the 1968 Democratic Convention, bungled how they requested the passenger leave the aircraft and the subsequent removal. The passengers bungled their response: everyone put themselves first and no one volunteered, and then they fought back against the removal — yet another demonstration of a “me first” attitude that has infected society. And everyone bungled things by not taking the time to think: it is a flipping five hour drive — the airline could have rented a car and driver, and gotten either its employees or passengers to their destination by the morning when they were needed, likely even before the plane touched down with the delays this created.

This incident demonstrates the worse of what our society has become: a society that doesn’t think, a society that feeds on outrage instead of journalism, a society that uses arcane rules instead of common sense, a mob response against “the man” (corporate leaders and law enforcement) before common sense.

All of this could have been avoided — at much less cost in terms of dollars and PR — if someone had said, “Hey, you know we could get our employees — or the bumped passengers — to their destination for perhaps $300 by renting a Lincoln Towncar and driver, with only a 3 hour delay.” Instead, they spent how much on the volunteer incentives, how much on dealing with negative publicity, and how much on the eventual legal proceedings.

Think first, people.