Social media lit up with confusion, derision and concern during the weekend over United Airlines barring two teenage girls from their Minneapolis-bound flight for wearing leggings.
1) A @united gate agent isn't letting girls in leggings get on flight from Denver to Minneapolis because spandex is not allowed?— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 26, 2017
The passengers this morning were United pass riders who were not in compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel.— United (@united) March 26, 2017
Jonathan Guerin, spokesman for the airline, told The New York Times that the young passengers did not meet the dress code requirements for a program that allows airline employees and their families to fly for free.
“It’s not that we want our standby travelers to come in wearing a suit and tie or that sort of thing," Guerin told The Times. "We want people to be comfortable when they travel as long as it’s neat and in good taste for that environment.”
The “pass travelers,” since they are designated as representatives of the company, are not allowed to wear things such as flip flops, torn jeans, midriff-baring shirts -- basically any clothing that reveals undergarments -- and the clothing item in question, spandex leggings.
While it’s understandable that United Airlines wants employees to put their best foot forward and the dress code was intended to help safeguard its reputation, it appears that the takeaway for people watching the incident unfold was inconvenience and an outdated rule that seemed to unduly target women’s clothing choices.
So what can other companies learn from United’s messaging faux pas?
Denise Lee Yohn, the author of What Great Brands Do, told Entrepreneur that while consistency is admirable in a brand, in this case, the company would have done well to tell aggrieved customers that it was planning to review its rules around the dress code.
“United Airlines has taken the high road by enforcing, and then sticking to, an established policy," she says. "Companies establish rules like this to maintain their desired brand image -- United shouldn’t be faulted for that. But this is the kind of fodder that fuels social media, and so it’s taken a hit. The company should have stated that it supports its employees for following procedure but it would be reexamining its policy.”
Jim Joseph, worldwide president at Cohn & Wolfe, agreed, noting that clarity is the only way to mitigate against a social media blowup.
“Social media moves quickly, so it’s imperative to respond to issues with quick, full and transparent communications, as early -- and as often -- as possible,” Joseph told Entrepreneur. “If initial tweets from the brand had better explained that these travelers were part of an employee benefit program that has a dress code, perhaps some of the backlash could have been avoided. If the dress code is revisited, then United should also let that be known publicly."