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Apr 14, 2017
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

By now, most of us have seen the shocking video where United Airlines had an unwilling 69-year-old passenger dragged off of one of their airplanes. Many are also aware that United also recently refused to let two teenage girls fly because they were wearing leggings that violated an ancient dress code rule. And almost instantly, these negative incidences that were spread across social media cost the airline millions.

Now, if you’re not a flight attendant, you might be thinking “so what.” But if you’re involved in making or enforcing rules it’s time to realize that these types of incidences can no longer be allowed to occur. Because, taken together these two rule enforcement incidents have dramatically and negatively impacted not just United’s product brand reputation, but also their ticket sales. And yes, the damage continued on into their stock price (United lost $255 million in value in a single day).

Rethinking policies

If you work in HR you must be especially vigilant, because most rules and policies emanate from HR. As an executive responsible for creating rules, it’s important to realize that most existing corporate rules were developed long before social media came into dominance. And as a result, almost all of these locally enforced rules and policies omit a now essential “stop enforcing the rule” decision factor. And that new essential factor is…

Does enforcing the rule or policy have the potential for creating an ugly public event that could result in a damaging viral video or Tweet stream that might appear on social media? And if so, find an alternative action with low PR consequences.

HR and the new world of social media

When most rules and policies are developed, they make perfect sense to the executives working at corporate headquarters. But because of the incidents at United, Uber and many police departments, we now know that the employees that enforce these rules and policies at the local level are often not taking into account the possibility of a bad social media backlash.

So in my view, the time has come for all rule-makers and executives to realize we now live in a viral social media world, where even minor negative incidents can be blown out of proportion and spread almost instantly. And as a result, rule-makers and HR need to ensure that every existing rule or policy contains a clause that requires the local managers and employees to fully take into account the possibility of negative social media publicity.

Employees at the local level should be empowered or even required to ignore or sidestep a non-health, safety, security rule or a legal requirement, whenever there is a possibility of damaging publicity.

Why HR needs to rethink the rules

When you think about it a minute, we quickly realize there are many reasons why HR needs to change the way rules and policies are enforced. Those reasons include:

  • Everyone has a mobile phone camera – Around the globe, everyone has a mobile phone with a camera. And most use it almost instantly whenever anything interesting occurs around them. As a result, if your firm has an incident in a crowded area, the public will likely have an opportunity to view damaging videos from multiple individuals.
  • Negative videos and Tweet streams are spread instantly – The reality is that negative incidents emanating from corporate actions will be spread globally within one day on social media venues like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Not only will your customers see them, but also they will be seen by your potential customers.
  • Haters dominate social media – As the song goes, “haters gonna hate.” But because there are so many causes and extreme interest groups on social media, negative or hate messages now seem to spread faster and wider than ever before.
  • The negative publicity will impact your online ratings — if your firm’s products or services are publicly rated on social media sites like Yelp. We now know that bad social media publicity as a result of rule enforcement actions will bleed over and cause your ratings to drop. The rating of your firm as a “good place to work” will also drop on sites like And that will negatively impact recruiting (it already has at United).
  • Weak apologies spread rapidly also — We know from the recent “first try apologies” from Sean Spicer and United CEO  that those that are publicly viewed as weak or limited will extend the damage. So it’s essential that you fully apologize the first time. It’s also better to over-apologize than to under apologize and long-delayed apologies are never a good idea.
  • Your firm will also be blamed for the actions of others – We know from previous incidents that your firm will obviously be blamed for the actions of your employees. But in addition, your firm will also be blamed for the actions of nonemployees, security and vendors that you summon to the scene (the security guards in the United passenger dragging incident were not United employees).

Actions to take

The first step is to work with your CFO to calculate the dollar costs of these types of social media PR errors. This is to ensure that executives and managers at both the corporate and local level fully understand the tremendous costs that result from a single PR mistake.

Next, review all current rules to add a “Don’t do anything that creates negative publicity” overriding caveat to each.

Obviously, some sort of online employee training needs to be offered so that every manager and employee fully understands how they must operate in a social media world. They must understand that “avoiding looking bad” trumps blindly following any rules (with the exceptions of health, safety, laws and security). Employees and managers should also be warned about the likelihood of expanded damage if the parties involved are a member of a major protected or vocal group.

Companies might also consider utilizing “mystery shoppers” to ensure that the newly implemented social media clause is operating effectively. And finally, executives, local managers and employees need to be periodically assessed and rewarded based on how well they minimize negative public incidents when they occur. Avoiding these major incidents should also be a criteria for promoting managers.

Final thoughts

Executives must assume that the spreading of negative corporate social media messages will continually grow as a problem. So there must be prevention actions. Unfortunately, most rules and policies are made independently of each business unit. So that makes it difficult to coordinate among all rule makers to ensure that they include a “bad publicity trumps rule enforcement” override clause in every major rule and policy. It’s only been a handful of days but with a $255 million loss already, United hasn’t wasted a minute in re-examining its approach to rule enforcement in the new reality of social media.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.