United Airlines made the headlines for all the wrong reasons this month. According to eye-witness reports and in the aftermath that followed, it is clear a stunning catalogue of errors were made. Much coverage has focused on the PR errors (of which there were a few) but if we go back to the actual incident itself – it was a story of personal distress which was captured on film and in turn publicised around the world. The passenger in question, Mr Dao, later described the experience as more ‘horrifying and harrowing’ than when he had escaped Vietnam following the fall of Saigon.

When you consider it from a human perspective, there is very little that a brand can say in response without being in danger of causing real offence. In short, there is nowhere to hide. United’s competitors knew this well and one by one they responded.
Air Jordan stated that dragging was prohibited on their flights and similarly Qatar airways playfully adopted the messaging that their app does not support drag and drop. Emirates, too, shared a video poking fun at United’s beleaguered CEO.

Of the three, the Emirates response fares best. It defiantly quotes United’s CEO as saying “Those [gulf] airlines aren’t airlines,” then continues to showcase tripadvisor reviews describing it as the best airline to fly with and celebrates its many award successes. Emirates used the opportunity to challenge and self-promote in a way that was in tune with already planned messaging. In fact it’s a video which would have worked without United’s disastrous overbooking issue. The other airlines fail in that they are echoing the same jokes already in circulation, but in a more anodyne way.
‘Newsjacking’ – leveraging trending news to elevate a brands message – is a term that has only recently become a marketing buzzword. But not all brands get it right. Remember when an array of clothing brands tried to jump on trending news of Superstorm Sandy with sales messages, and Kenneth Cole tried to tap into Twitter buzz on the Arab spring?

Now as the fallout from United’s disastrous month is settling, there’s a lesson and a reminder for other brands too. Effective Newsjacking is not just raising a laugh that will last for a moment and risk being forgotten just as quickly. While referencing up-to-date news stories and getting in on the conversation can make a brand seem relevant and even get them trending socially for a while, it is best to leverage news in a humorous yet intelligent way that plays to existing marketing plans and long term strategy.