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#DividedByUnited: Storytelling in an Emergency

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Image from Instagram: @______indigo

"Emotions, however strong, can quickly be erased and inverted by an alternative narrative."

When asking myself what kind of article I should write I took a look at United Airlines’ (you’ve heard of them before, right?) Twitter account. Despite becoming infamous across the world over a month ago now, the top-most tweet on their feed (as of writing this) is a response to a user asking how they are still in business. Things really can drag on, can’t they…

Mistakes happen, every company makes them, just like any person does. There is no getting around this. Success comes when you take (sour, sour) lemons and make (sweet, sugary, bubbly) lemonade.

I was reminded of how to do this at a recent meeting of the Real Time Club here in London: a monthly networking and lecture event to discuss technology in business. This month’s topic? Intelligence, be it human or artificial. Our speakers covered a great deal of information but I was immediately struck by one fact that was tossed out as an aside.

One thing we (by which I mean, scientists far more qualified than myself) understand about emotions is that they are fundamentally fragile. Somebody bumps into you and you come away thinking to yourself “What a jerk!”. Equally, if that same person gives you a heartfelt “Sorry”, that same feeling can evaporate instantly. Even strong negative emotions can be quickly erased by an authentic, strong grasp of the situation. You still got a bump on the shoulder but your perception has changed based on the narrative. This is what companies must strive to achieve: the positive narrative in the immediate aftermath of an incident.

The CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, could have said and done many things after news of 69-year-old Dr Dao’s, ahem, experience came to light. He did release a statement, albeit saying that "This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United". I’m sure it is but this doesn’t say how he feels about it personally. The disappointment with events is diluted across the staff of his company. When he does use the all-important word, “I”, it is to say that he apologises "for having to re-accommodate these customers”. Now I haven’t spoken to Dr Dao but however unhappy he might have been about being asked to leave that is unlikely to be the most memorable part of the incident for him…Another, more conciliatory statement was released later but therein lies the issue; it was too late. Control of the narrative was lost.

As one observer of the incident, Tyler Bridges, said: "Airlines overbook flights all the time — that's not uncommon. But everyone felt that they had wronged the man". Systems and processes had failed, a man had been embarrassed and injured, an uncaring CEO chuckled as he stroked his white cat in the bond villain lair hidden beneath a fake volcano.

“But what am I supposed to do? I’m just a lowly peon, not Bill Gates.” I hear you cry. Well, I have good news for you. A good story needs a hero, a protagonist, and some of the best have been everyday folk like you and me. Where would the galaxy be without an unassuming farmhand going by the name of Luke Skywalker?

Enter Ross: an unassuming member of Sainsbury’s social media team. Tragedy has struck. In a Facebook message shared over 20,000 times, a woman announces that she has found a worm in a head of lettuce she bought. Someone else might have shrugged it off and ignored it or given a simple apology, flimsier than a lettuce leaf. Not Ross. Our hero has a mantle to take up. A sword to be pulled from a stone. And so, they try something different:

The narrative has changed. Nobody is disputing that a worm was in someone’s lettuce. But, a problem has arisen, someone is in need of help and a hero has come to their aid. The narrative is one of comedy and happenstance rather than misfortune and complacency. I’m sure the £10 Sainsburys gift card (think how many heads of lettuce that can buy!) and a Netflix gift card helped too. However, it’s not every day that someone in a social media team gets called a “Legend” by a wronged customer…Something is different here.

Ross, Araminta Marketing salutes you.

Now let’s unite behind great storytelling.

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