When airport security personnel dragged a paying passenger off a United Airlines flight in the US, bruised and bloodied, in order to accommodate off-duty personnel, it had the makings of a public relations mess. But even so, the speed with which the incident has turned into a PR disaster is startling—thanks to social media. A video taken by a fellow passenger has gone viral and garnered over 120 million hits in less than a day in China alone—particularly damaging since the passenger is of Chinese descent and the country is a lucrative market for United.
This isn’t the first time a viral video or a tone-deaf tweet has turned into a PR headache. British Airways had its own experience with it in India in 2015 when it managed to annoy Sachin Tendulkar on social media. There’s corporate branding’s arguably toughest task today: riding the social media tiger. A clever tweet or a satisfied one from a customer can and has led to a spike in sales—but a careless one can lead to the kind of negative exposure money can’t always fix.