[By Nisha Chopra]

As a PR professional, you were likely watching the events involving United Airlines unfold on the morning of March 27.

Two teenage girls were barred from boarding a United Airlines flight because they were wearing leggings, which are considered inappropriate attire for “pass riders”. A woman who witnessed the girls being denied entry thought the rule applied to regular passengers and changed her child’s outfit to avoid a similar fate. This was documented on social media and sparked a media firestorm with infuriated users citing the airline’s policy as “intrusive and sexist.” The crisis erupted because it was unclear as to whether United was denying entry for all passengers in leggings, or just those travelling as “pass riders”.

It took the airline a few hours to respond to the backlash, which only fuelled the public’s anger. United Airlines appeared to stand by their actions and were quoted in a statement saying that they, “reserved the right to deny service to anyone its employees deemed to be inappropriately dressed.” United’s initial statement and posts on social media did little to clarify the company’s policy of professional attire for “pass riders”.  This misunderstanding caused the story to develop into a larger conversation about gender discrimination.

High profile celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen, LeVar Burton and Patricia Arquette joined the discussion and turned up the social media heat.

United’s statement and social media responses should have been crafted to defuse the crisis, not accelerate it. It would have been helpful to put out apologetic messages to the media and emphasize United’s commitment to customer service, as well as to the customers themselves.

In the company’s statements on the issue, they tried to explain their policies in technical terms that would only be understood by employees. When dealing with a crisis of this magnitude that has developed as a result of miscommunication, it is best to communicate in simple language moving forward.

Remember: Be sympathetic, be accountable and emphasize your brand’s commitment to customer satisfaction.

So here’s to United Airlines learning from its mistakes… while teaching the rest of us a valuable lesson in crisis communications.

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(Photo via WikiMediaCommons)