United crashes and burns on social. Again.

By now pretty well the whole world must have seen the United Airlines passenger being dragged off Flight 3411 by three security officers, captured and shared instantly on social media by the other passengers.

It’s spawned a global outburst of outrage, along with some very funny memes – the ‘Airplane’ panicking passenger being beaten up, repurposed as a United staff training video, or Kendall Jenner trying to calm the officers with a can of Pepsi echoing the week’s other marketing disaster.

News networks have queued up to enjoy the story, bringing in ‘brand experts’ to talk about United’s self-inflicted injury including AML’s Ian Henderson on BBC. The story appears to have seriously damaged the airline’s reputation in Asia (the passenger is Vietnamese by birth) and tanked the company’s share price. The CEO Oscar Munoz has made things a lot worse by calling the passenger ‘belligerent’ in a leaked email (did he really think it was private?) before doing the right thing – apologising and promising to fix the problem, as Ian predicted.

You’d think United Airlines would have learned its lesson. Back in 2009 some of their baggage handlers damaged passenger Dave Carroll’s beloved Taylor guitar – and the airline refused to apologise or take responsibility. So Dave wrote a song called ‘United Breaks Guitars’ which became an early viral hit on social media and caused a 10% fall in United’s share price. United has to do now what they should have done then – instil the kind of customer service its 1965-vintage tagline ‘Come Fly the Friendly Skies’ plainly demands.

And let’s hope they learn their social media lesson this time. You simply can’t fight your customers, physically or virtually. Because now more than ever, they’ll win.