Inside United's social media response to #LeggingsGate

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United Airlines MD of global communications Megan McCarthy says the carrier should have taken a more thoughtful approach to responding to the dress-code controversy.

A speedy response is usually best for a brand when it comes to a customer complaint. Yet when a passenger tweeted an observation about United Airlines not letting young girls in leggings board a flight due to their attire on Sunday morning, the carrier’s initial reaction caused the situation to blow up into an international news story, now known as #LeggingsGate.

The passenger who complained was Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots movement to prevent gun violence, who has a following on Twitter of more than 34,700. Shortly after Watts’ tweet-storm, celebrities such as actresses Patricia Arquette and Kat Dennings, actor William Shatner, comedians Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman, and supermodel Chrissy Teigen weighed in, suggesting the dress code was absurd—and worse, sexist.

United responded swiftly and publicly to Watts’ tweet, explaining the passengers were "pass travelers," traveling as relatives or dependents of a United employee and subject to more stringent dress rules.

Yet by that time, it was too late. The backlash against the airline was in full force, with social media users and news outlets sounding off on the incident.

Megan McCarthy, MD of global communications at United, says the airline "made a mistake" in its initial response to Watts. The airline tries to be responsive to the thousands of tweets it receives from customers every day, she explains, and in this instance, the internal team handling social media moved too quickly.

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

United’s comms team saw the incident was gaining traction on social media and that "customers were looking for more information" from the airline. Its team huddled and decided it needed to explain the situation in more detail than could be done in 140 characters. A few hours later, the group penned and posted an explanation on United’s Hub website, emphasizing "leggings are welcome" for regular customers.

"We put that together so people could link to it to get a fuller picture of what happened," says McCarthy. "We wanted to put more context around what transpired and show that our employee was following the guidelines that were in front of her."

Aside from clarifying its dress code, United’s comms team is focusing on supplying media outlets with the correct information. Edelman has been working with United in response to the incident.

"We were working against facts that were already out there and they were incorrect in terms of the number of customers, the age of the customers, and who got on the aircraft," says McCarthy. "The tweets coming out from the start were incorrectly posing that it was a 10-year-old passenger whose father was wearing shorts. [In reality] this was two teenage passengers with their mother traveling on employee passes."

The backlash could prompt United to change its dress code, she adds.

"Anytime something like this happens, of course we are going to have [an internal] conversation and say, ‘Are these the right guidelines?’" McCarthy says.

The airline began talking with its own staff on Monday about the incident.

"A lot of our employees have questions, and we have heard feedback," says McCarthy. "We are communicating with them and continue to be as responsive as we can to concerns from customers and inquiries from the media."

Jeff Eller, founder of the Jeff Eller Group and a deputy assistant to the president and director of media affairs in the Clinton White House, notes that United’s crisis shows the "unrestrained power" of social media. He says United "did what it needed to do" in its response to Watts’ uninformed tweet: explaining why it did what it did and staying consistent, fact-based, and not defensive.

"The larger your enterprise gets, the harder it is to plan for [a speedy response], because if you have layer upon layer, it becomes more complicated," says Eller. "So you need to scenario plan with the appropriate players in the room in advance, so you are not sitting around a conference table for four hours while you are getting the crap beat out of you."

‘This is an example of how non-stories can get legs’
Caeli Communications founder John McDonald, a former comms VP at American Airlines and U.S. Airways, has been at the helm of social media teams that have encountered similar problems. Most airlines have a "contract of carriage," or a contract consumers sign when they buy a ticket. It typically includes a clause that explains the airline has the right to refuse to carry passengers for a number of circumstances, such as disruptive behavior.

McDonald ran into his own crisis over a customer’s clothing in 2011, when a 65-year-old Phoenix man was barred from boarding a U.S. Airways plane because he was wearing nothing but women’s lingerie.

"You have to be careful not to appear discriminatory," says McDonald. "People were posting his picture on social and tagging the airline. On several occasions, he was permitted to board a plane and it created disruptions on the flight and social media issues."

He contends the guidelines are not the problem in a case like United’s, but ignorance is.

"This is an example of how non-stories can get legs," he says. "A person who misinterprets a conversation they overheard can create a problem and have righteous indignation over an issue that is not there. And now people are piling on on social media when they are ignorant to what is going on."

To mitigate the incident quickly, United should have told Watts to direct message her phone number so it could explain the matter to her privately, McDonald says.

"In the airline space, it is important to understand what is going on before you respond publicly to an issue," he explains. "You can always respond quickly and say, ‘We understand this is happening, let us investigate.’ You can respond without committing yourself to an answer to the problem before you figure out what is going on."

United did too much explaining, rather than addressing and fixing the problem, adds Levick SVP Jack Deschauer. His advice: fix first, explain second.

"When you are explaining, you are usually losing," he says. "They should have simply said, ‘We had a miscommunication and it is our fault and we have taken care of it.’ If they had done that right away, they could have come back later with a full explanation."

This story first appeared in PR Week.