Sunday night, United CEO Oscar Munoz was likely consulting with his top advisors about how to appropriately respond to the media crisis sparked by Sunday’s 31 second video of United passenger Dr. David Dao being dragged forcibly from his seat on Flight 3417 from Chicago to Louisville, KY. The video was posted by by fellow passenger Audra Bridges to Facebook. Bloodier videos followed. While it is impossible to know what Munoz’s discussion entailed, the resulting response by United indicates major companies still have a very limited understanding of the nature of media in 2017.
Simply put, in the era of social media, the whole public relations notion of “controlling the message” is no longer relevant. The idea of ‘media control’ in any meaningful way is a relic of an era in which corporate media was a dominant force of social influence. This classic PR strategy died fast, and it could not be more dead now.
Today, the public is the media. The public controls the narrative as an entity I refer to as “the public media.” The public media includes all social media platforms. As a media entity, the public media has a nature entirely different from traditional vertical media, or what I refer to in this article as “classic media.”
The Currency of Classic Media: Borrowing on Old Credit
The vertical media that totally dominated the public conversation of the 20th Century is “classic media.” Working with classic media, a major corporation like United could issue a statement to the corporate friendly outlets in an often successful PR effort to ‘control the narrative.’ Classic media in turn would give a credible nod to the outrage of the public reaction in its coverage of the story. The words of the corporation would be weighted equally in the discussion. This projected an image of fairness in reporting all sides. Once the story was “fairly reported,” the exit path was mapped out for closing debate on the issue in the public sphere.
Classic media would quietly move on to the next news story, effectively cycling out the backlash. The public citizen might become enraged by the incident, but in the classic media model, the relationship of citizens to media was extremely limited and one-sided, tipping the balance heavily in favor of classic media. Citizens lived isolated from one another, insulated physically by cars and suburbs and digitally by the schedule of broadcast TV programming. Citizen response to events was restricted, particularly if you did not wish to leave your comfy chair.
One could either accept how the classic media chooses to handle the story, or reject the dominant paradigm of classic media and continue to marinate in outrage. Continuing to reject the mainstream position, even after the media cycle had shifted, pushed the citizen into further isolation. I refer to this phenomenon as ‘yelling at the TV.’ For anyone who has witnessed it, it is unbecoming to those who yell at TV’s, and paints the image of a socially unacceptable person.
As the media signaled to the public that it was time to move on from the controversy, the public moved on. Citizens stuck on the topic would be pushed to the social fringe. Classic media carried the currency, and with this currency was the ability to minimize and marginalize the undesirable reactions of the fractured public.
The attempts of classic media and the public relations firms of corporations like United to utilize this dated PR system and strategy works primarily to show the public these entities still believe in the relevance of their own failed ploys of yesteryear. For a story with this magnitude of social media traction, this strategy effectively no longer exists.
The Currency of Public Media: On The Money
Today the public creates its own media independent of classic media. The strategies used to craft public consensus in the classic media era have backfired. The people who are angry as hell about being marginalized by classic media are the loudest voices and most motivated practitioners in the public media sphere. The indignity of ‘Yelling at the TV’ has been replaced with home media newsrooms that work. With the ability to create media, the public now collectively creates the currency that controlling the media brings with it.
Pundits, editors and writers and their corporate owners are no longer empowered to determine the length of a news cycle, and the public relishes that they have swapped the remote control for the news station. With the winds of social currency at its back, the public is empowered to chose how long its outrage cycles will endure. Public media response is the biggest story that exists. What used to be a ‘public reaction’ covered by the ‘legitimate media’ has morphed into the public itself directing every aspect of the story. In an almost instantaneous reversal of fortunes that it has mostly failed to comprehend – or admit, classic media is now stuck following the story crafted by public media.
What the public gets, that classic media does not get, is that no single entity controls the story any more. It’s like that old saying about New York City: It doesn’t matter who you are, how rich or how connected, no one controls New York City. The media has become a global New York City. Possessing that understanding is yet another reason the public media is more relevant and growing more powerful every day.
It is within this frame, of total non-control of the narrative, that I would advise CEO Oscar Munoz before responding to this situation.
The Illusion of Control
Munoz and his team seem to believe in a linear narrative in which people have grievances, United responds, and the issue is weighed equally on both sides to determine what happened and what can be improved. Classic media has traditionally done what the word ‘mediation’ implies: filtration and translation of ideas and events in service of the public. This model implicitly assumes that messaging from United will move from the United PR desk into the classic, controlled media environment, where pundits will absorb its weight, granting the corporate citizen a fair shake in the debate.
What is actually happening is the messages are bypassing the pundit class altogether and being absorbed directly by the public. These messages are crafted on the well-paids PR desks of United and sent via Twitter to a million tiny volunteer newsrooms with no budget. Most of these tiny newsrooms have, editorially speaking, already made up their determinations about the culpability of United and its CEO. The messages are mostly fodder for the public media mill.
Given how irrelevant punditry and media interpretation is in this situation, I would argue that everything released by Munoz has had little influence on actual narrative. The public media has no interest in giving he who has already been judged a villain (person who creates policies that result in violence against innocent citizens) control of the narrative. Handing the narrative over to Munoz and his overpaid PR team is the last thing the volunteer team @publicmedia is ready to do. And once the public has made its verdict, your defense no longer matters. This is why this PR crisis begins at “Really Bad” and either gets worse, or, best case scenario, just remains “Really Bad” until it fades.
The desire for any better outcome by United is yet another illusion.
Several Classic PR Stumbles
United voluntarily provided a ‘belligerent customer’ counter-narrative in the “of course it will be leaked” letter to employees. By choosing to defend the company, and even offering a narrative of a ‘belligerent passenger’ that was quickly contradicted in the public testimony of the other passengers, and executing a classic media PR hit on the man who was victimized, United made several classic PR mistakes, all of which I would advise against.
Three written releases have come out of United so far: The ‘assume this will be leaked’ letter to employees; the first failed non-apology; and the second ‘textbook’ apology. While these were designed by the CEO and PR team to control the narrative, what they boil down to are mainly symbols or signs (signifiers) that are absorbed into the story by the public. What they say by way of defense of the company is moot. The company is indefensible to public media. The only clear action the company can take in this situation is to maintain a holding pattern at ‘Really Bad,’ and do nothing to expedite a descent into ‘A Lot Worse.’
United chose to descend.
Rainbows and Unicorns: Conscious Projection In The Social Media Environment
A large part of that descent is a failure to understand how the material United is producing plays in social media. Social media has a fairly strict protocol, and in this protocol is a set of rules no one talks about. These unspoken rules are that everyone must remain positive; suffering must only be funny; and, at the end of the day, Rainbows and Unicorns are not to be messed with. The ‘everything is alright’ illusion is the most important thing. Disrupting that fabric is a near criminal offense in social media.
By creating a massive viral spread of content that is violent without a shred of humor, United has already accomplished the unforgivable: Violence without humor. And a lot of it. That’s a huge social media deficit to start with.
Social media is like a stuffy Princeton cocktail party; it is set up to enforce a pervasive air of positivity. Negativity must be coded and nuanced in order to be accepted into the social milieu. Backstabbing and relational aggression are popular forms of negativity, as they can be presented in a positive light. Outrage is welcome, because it is a form of group negativity in pursuit of a higher social purpose, i.e. PUTTING AN END TO THIS OUTRAGE.
A lack of awareness and calculation in regards to one’s social identity — and probably more importantly, what one’s social identity signifies to other people on social media, is yet another near capital offense in the unwritten code of the social media regime.
Bringing your work problems to the party is also a big no-no.
Munoz, acting in a ‘professional manner,’ commits several social media crimes (unconsciously sends out signifiers) in his messages. He talks about his job and how hard it is. Strike one. Unless you work in the service industry and the story is funny, your job problems are YOURS. This is information no one wants to see on social media, and the fact it came from a professional PR release just makes the ‘whining’ worse.
If the public media could send a group message back to Mr. Munoz, I think it would read something like this:
Dear Mr. Beats People Up At Work And Collects Millions Yearly For Beating People Up At Work,
We care not for your problems, your business, or the challenges you face in making judgments in your ridiculous job that only a crazy-person would consider taking. We know you are crazy because you continue to use obvious PR ploys on us like we’re still your lemming media idiots, in a futile effort to convince us your multi-million dollar defecation isn’t some of the stinkiest around.
But thank you for bringing up the ‘plight’ suffered by the super-rich for whom we already have less than zero empathy. We will now ridicule everything you do. Keep sending material, especially the parts where you face-plant. Everyone loves that stuff.
Your appreciative ‘fans,’
The Public Media
Such is the is the collective voice of the aggrieved. For those formerly ‘in control,’ social media is now your TV to yell at. Accept it and deal with it responsibly, or your media crisis will descend from “Really Bad” to “Much Worse.”
Originally published 6:59pm ET on April 13, 2017