At Ideagility we provide marketing and public relations services especially designed for small business; all things communications is the industry that I have loved for, well, several decades. Did you read about the very public nightmare that United Airlines created for themselves? This week they denied boarding to a couple teenager girls and then a family with a little girl – all because the young people wore leggings.
My comments about this kerfuffle have nothing to do with leggings. I’d rather talk about PR savvy. Any corporate public relations policy, whether from the corner market or a Fortune 500 brand like United has the same goal: enhance the public’s impression of your brand in the best way possible.
United was quick to double down, defending their ticket agent’s actions in a same-day barrage that included dozens of tweets. Most notably, they explained that customers were free to wear leggings, just not “pass travelers.” Social media critics were just as quick to lash back, pointing out that the little girl’s father boarded the plane in shorts that were, well, too short. They wondered why hairy adult male knees were ok and little girls in leggings weren’t.
Then United weighed in with no less than an interview in the New York Times. Mr. Jonathan Guerin, United spokesman, reported:
“…leggings violated the company’s dress code policy for “pass travelers,” a company benefit that allows United employees and their dependents to travel for free on a standby basis.”
In the Times, Mr. Guerin also stated that pass travelers are “representing” the company and as such are not allowed to wear Lycra and spandex leggings, tattered or ripped jeans, midriff shirts, flip-flops or any article of clothing that shows their undergarments. Just to be extra clear, he added,
“We want people to be comfortable when they travel as long as it’s neat and in good taste for that environment.”
This ‘just for you folks’ policy is ill informed for a couple obvious reasons: Pass travelers are invisible to others, they do not “represent” United in any discernible way. Regular customers can’t tell who is a pass traveler and who isn’t so any opportunity to represent the brand is lost on others. Second, pointing out that your friends and family, pass travelers, are held to your standards of “good taste” and that your customers are not is a veiled insult to the people who pay the bill. The policy as explained by Mr. Guerin reveals that United is happy to take your money even if they think you have bad taste. Bad idea.
Rather than rushing to defend, United could have been noncommittal but circumspect and respectful. They could have simply stated that they were reconsidering their policies and that they appreciated all the input—and they could have actually meant it. If they were authentically worried about representing their brand they could have had enough common sense to listen to Mom – and never pick on little girls.