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Wikipedia Drags United Airlines Reputation

The video of Chicago Aviation Police dragging Dr. David Dao off United Flight 3411 was posted and shared across the Internet and social media, triggering widespread consumer outrage. Hashtags such as #boycott united and #boycott unitedairlines urged consumers to boycott the airline. On the night of the incident, United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement in response to the incident via Twitter. Consumers perceived the response was tone-deaf and became even more enraged.

In early morning trading on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, the stock price dropped, reducing the value of the company by $900 million. A petition signed by 89,750 people urged Munoz to resign.

Wikipedia’s Response to Oscar Munoz

Immediately following the event, visitor traffic spiked on the United Airlines and Oscar Munoz Wikipedia articles.

More notably, the Wikipedia community of volunteers created an article for Flight 3411 because there was both significant and persistent media coverage. Prior to April 10, Oscar Munoz’s Wikipedia biography had low edit activity. Edit activity surged when the airline issued its official response.

Crisis Communications: The Impact on Wikipedia

As more facts surfaced, the story of Flight 3411 on Wikipedia changed. On April 11 and 12, edit activity slowed on Oscar Munoz’s Wikipedia article. The content was rewritten to recount the event rather than quote his response verbatim.

Since Wikipedia is live and organic, content is in constant flux. But as the dust settles and people move onto another news story or event, a Wikipedia article persists for years. For example, the Wikipedia article for Flight 3411 has high visitor traffic while the story is fresh. Visitor and editor activity will eventually drop, but the article will still exist. It is searchable on Google and linked to the United Airlines and Oscar Munoz Wikipedia articles. The significance of Wikipedia in crisis communications is easy when compared to the lifespan of other social media. Though there is no consensus regarding where Wikipedia fits into the digital strategy, our clients bundle it in reputation and brand management.


Controlling the Story on Wikipedia

Is there a way to control the story on Wikipedia? Having a well-prepared crisis media plan is the closest thing to that. Wikipedia articles are composed of media clippings pieced together. Executive interview transcripts, press conference transcripts, and articles exclusives with renowned publications are Wikipedia-acceptable as citations to support Wikipedia article content. Though Wikipedia is thought of as the encyclopedia, “anyone can edit”, there is a caveat. Representatives, employees, and agents of corporations and/or executives must disclose their identity and intent. Known as Conflict of Interest (COI), this is explicitly outlined in Wikipedia’s Terms of Use. Legally enforceable, COI is intended to prevent individuals who may have bias towards defending the company from whitewashing Wikipedia articles. Individuals with COI are strongly discouraged from directly editing Wikipedia articles. The non-legal implications are brand-damaging headlines in mainstream, business, and public relations industry publications.

Wikipedia should be in everyone’s crisis communications strategic plan. Preemptive and ethical tactics such as disclosing COI on the company Wikipedia article and the CEO’s Wikipedia biography, as well as subscribing to Wikipedia Watchlists are part of the defensible response to inquiry by the CEO and board of directors. Overlooking Wikipedia’s 200+ policies or unintentionally violating COI will exacerbate a crisis incident and further damage reputation. As the saying goes, “Success is 99% preparation.”

Update: April 21, 2017, United Airlines announced CEO Oscar Munoz will not be appointed Chairman of the Board. In proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the board amended senior executive incentive compensation, “directly and meaningfully tied to progress in improving the customer experience.”

#CrisisCommunications #Reputation #PublicRelations #Executive

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