United Kicked a Man Off A Plane — Here’s Why You Heard about It


The last month been especially challenging for United Airlines.

On April 9th, a United passenger captured a 31-second smartphone video showing a man being dragged, seemingly unconscious, through the center aisle of a plane departing from Chicago to Louisville. United later explained the incident as a response to overbooking the flight, where “one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.”

Lucas Aulbach, a local crime reporter for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky saw the video and wrote a story that sparked a boycott, damaged a brand, and changed the way people think about flying. Here’s how:

The Headline Made for Social

“Video shows man forcibly removed from United flight from Chicago to Louisville” consumes 79 characters of Twitter’s 140 character limit. This leaves sixty-one characters for links, profane hashtags, calls to boycott, and more. From a social perspective, the headline was made to be shared.

Twitter users shared the headline and the link more than 18,000 times in 48 hours. This is more than 56 times the cumulative number of Twitter shares generated by the Courier-Journal in the previous 30 days. Additionally, the article earned over 42,000 interactions into Facebook. The Louisville Courier-Journal simply does not earn this amount of virality on stories they publish.

The Syndicate

Gannett operates over 100 daily and nearly 1,000 weekly newspapers, including USA Today as well as the Louisville Courier-Journal. It leverages its national newsroom to supply quality stories to local publications and vice-versa. The network publishes over 3,000 journalists who create content that is shared among sites within its network.

After the initial story ran, Gannett’s platform was able to syndicate the story across the network, driving traffic back to the Courier-Journal, boosting its virality.

The Influencers

The story circulated for hours before influencers took notice. Then, at 6AM on April 10th, Time’s Alex Fitzpatrick and CNBC’s Carl Quintana published tweets with their own perspectives on the story.

The story grew from 70 shares at 6:00AM local time to nearly 11,000 shares at 12:00PM based on the initial tweets of just two influencers. Over half the Twitter volume occurred within six hours.

Brandwatch, one of Turbine Labs’ key data partners, tracked over 2.5 million mentions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the next two days.

The Earned Media

On any given day, United Airlines earns approximately 500 media placements. Common topics include financial performance, the state of the airline industry, frequent flyer announcements, and credit card programs.

In two days this event earned over 6,000 unique media placements in the United States alone. RawStory published an article titled "'Just kill me’: Disturbing new video shows removed United passenger with his face covered in blood.” This story earned more than 71,000 social interactions alone. The event will be United's largest negative contributor in years.

Curating Through A Crisis

All brands experience crises. In general, the bigger the brand, the greater the impact of each event. The tried-and-true formula for managing crises still applies:

open communication + honesty + management of outrage + empathy = resolution

Each headline within this post represents a pivot point within the crisis where the amplification and impact of an event can be managed using analysis. Understanding how a narrative unfolds can help communications and marketing teams focus their efforts with specific reporters or publication networks to clarify positions.

Because so much “consolidation of attention” is driven by headlines phrases, rather than the depth of a story, outreach efforts can use a combination of traditional crisis response methods and social outreach methods to re-frame headlines, often steering the narrative of the entire topic.

Curated analysis and insights help brands dissect the pivot points within any event, understand the true narrative, and create rapid, appropriate responses.

Would any of the curated insights strategies have been effective in this particular crisis? What would the impact be if any of the pivot points were reduced, or managed earlier, by 5, 15, or 50%? Would the insights have been worth their investment? As they say, hindsight is 20/20.