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Cartoon image of United Airlines jet tied in a knot

Brand meltdowns can teach us a lot. Who can forget the videos of a man being dragged from a United Airlines jet several years ago, and the justifiable firestorm of public outrage that ensued. Brand equity that took years to build was lost in an instant – all due to an avoidable incident and inept handling by United Airlines. Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU and expert on public relations, said “It was probably the most tone deaf response I’ve ever seen to this type of issue… it’s as if they literally sat around and thought, ‘How could we make a bad situation worse.’”

However, it didn’t need to be that way — better policies, training, planning and communication would have averted it.

Most companies don’t receive the level of scrutiny that a major airline does but what happened is instructive for all businesses. Any business, including a small company, can come under fire in the press and on social media – or receive negative reviews and poor word of mouth.

Every business should take these steps to avert disaster and protect their brand:

Have a Plan

Brainstorm potential problem areas such as product failure, injury, poor service, property damage or accidents. For each scenario the company should develop policies to avert it, train employees to deal with it and in the worst case scenario have a PR plan to contain negative publicity.

Smart Policies

Design polices that are logical, fair and customer friendly. Avert problems by taking steps to see that they never occur.

Proper Training

Staff should be trained to deal with customers in averting potential issues and be given latitude to fix problems on the spot.


Confess, communicate and work toward a solution. Even if your customer was partly to blame don’t get defensive. Never resort to platitudes and “corporate-speak” to defend policies products or services. This reeks of insincerity and the public hates it. Instead, senior management should take personal action to meet with the customer, correct the situation, and ensure that the problem will not happen again.

Monitor Reviews

It is not uncommon to learn of an issue via social media or a negative review. All companies should monitor social media sites relevant to their industry and initiate contact with aggrieved customers to rectify the situation. If possible, write a response to the viewing public communicating that you are taking care of the customer, investigating the incident and ensuring it won’t happen again.

Brand meltdowns can be instantaneous in the case of a news story, or insidious due to an ongoing string of negative reviews. It takes years to build a brand but if a company is unprepared to deal with customer complaints or ignores public relations your reservoir of goodwill will quickly drain. Well thought out policies, advance planning, proper training, and sincere communication will avert issues and are the hallmark of a well-run company and a strong brand.