• What can communication professionals learn from #LeggingsGate?

    United Airlines were in the papers for all the wrong reasons in March, when a request that two teenage girls wear a dress over their leggings caused a communication storm.

    The story began when another passenger named Shannon Watts, an anti-gun campaigner with 34,000 followers, turned to Twitter to vent her anger after overhearing the request. United Airlines quickly responded, explaining that the girls were travelling as relatives of United Airlines employees, and were therefore representatives of the airline and subject to a certain dress code. By that time, however, it was too late – social media had gotten hold of the story, and was turning it into a very big deal.

    So, what can communication professionals in Australia learn from #LeggingsGate?

    The power of celebrities

    Shannon Watts wasn't even the one being told to change, yet she overheard the conversation and tweeted about it. Only a few hours later, celebrities such as Sarah Silverman and model Christine Teigan were getting involved. All of a sudden, United Airlines was getting 174,000 mentions a day, up from its normal 2,000, according to Kellan Terry of Brandwatch. Around 70 per cent of these comments were negative.

    The sway that famous people hold is a double-edged sword – in situations like this, they are able to spread negative stories like wildfire. On the other hand, their power can be harnessed positively via things like influencer marketing and celebrities becoming engaged in a cause. Leonardo DiCaprio's support of climate change issues, for instance, has done wonders for environmental organisations such as Greenpeace. 

    A quick response isn't always the best response

    Almost every aspect of this story is related to the fact that the fast-paced nature of social media is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Twitter is a great tool for companies to respond promptly to customer comments, resolving their issues quickly and making them feel appreciated. However, the United Airlines scandal shows us that a speedy response isn't always the best way forward. 

    Megan McCarthy, Managing Director of global communications at United, thought that a lot of the backlash was due to the initial response. 

    "We just responded instead of first saying, 'We are going to look into this, let us get back to you,'" said McCarthy. 

    Once they'd had sufficient time to consider the whole situation, the company's communication team wrote a much longer post on the airline's website spelling out the dress code policy in more detail, and emphasising that "leggings are welcome" for normal customers. 

    This raises a second issue specifically related to Twitter – though it is one of the most frequently used platforms to deal with customer complaints, 140 characters is often not enough to address what can be very sensitive issues. 

    It's difficult to correct misinformation once it's out there

    People are more aware than ever of fake news. However, that still doesn't stop them getting the facts wrong. Mrs. Watts' original tweet had claimed the girls involved were 10 years old, and media outlets also began reporting that they were with their father, who was wearing shorts. In fact, the girls were in their teens and were travelling with their mother, who was also on an employee pass. 

    This meant United Airlines was already engaged in an uphill battle merely to get the facts straight. The big takeaway here is that your responses to issues like this should always correct any misinformation. Hence it's essential to first post a "we are investigating this issue" style tweet before you make a full response, as you will almost never have access to all the information at first. This was United Airlines' big mistake.

    It's important that communication professionals in Australia are aware of these sorts of PR crises, so that we can avoid the same mistakes in the future. Please visit our insights page for more communication news and trends. 

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