United We Stand, Divided We Become a Trending News Story

boarding_passHere's one question you don't want to be asked by a brand representative when you're trying to resolve an ongoing issue: "Who did you speak to the last time you tried to resolve this?"

Once you hear that question, you know you're sunk. Implicit in that seemingly helpful question is a passing of the buck, a suggestion that one's colleagues are incompetent and that they're not accountable for each others' actions, that the brand and the individuals who work for that brand are separate entities.

I was asked this very question recently when I tried to downgrade my gym membership for the second time in two months. My response: "Does it make a difference who I spoke to? You all represent the same brand, so how can we fix this?"

The response: a snort and laughter. Then I was told that it couldn't be resolved over the phone, and that I'd have to meet the manager on-site during business hours, i.e., my work hours. After a statement of disbelief from me, the representative resolved the issue—over the phone. All I really wanted was for the representative to say she was sorry it didn't get resolved the first time, and that she'd do what she can to help me.

Granted, this was a minor inconvenience—not the sort of thing one would report to the media. No one was dragged off a United Airlines flight and had their teeth knocked out.

Speaking of United, the airline is once again in the news for ill treatment of a passenger and a belated apology. Hawaii News Now, the news department for several TV stations in Hawaii, reported that Shirley Yamauchi, a teacher from Hawaii flying with her 27-month-old son, was forced to give up a seat she purchased for her son on the final leg of an 18-hour June 29 flight from Hawaii. She and her son were in their seats waiting for the plane to taxi to the runway, when another passenger claimed that the seat her son was in was actually his. The passenger said he bought the seat on standby, and he had a boarding pass to prove it.

Here's the key sentence from the Hawaii News Now report: "[Yamauchi] says she told the flight attendant about the problem, but the woman just shrugged, said the flight was full, and walked away."

Thoughts of another Asian person getting dragged off a United flight flitted through her mind, so she moved her son—who weighs 25 pounds—to her lap for the final leg of her journey, resulting in numbness in her legs and left arm.

In an accompanying video, Yamauchi says, "I started remembering all those incidents with United on the news, the violence, teeth being knocked out. I'm Asian, I'm scared...I didn't want those things to happen to me."

Five days later came the apology from United, according to the report, which has been referenced by many major news outlets. United said her son's boarding pass had been scanned incorrectly, which led to the sale of the same seat to the standby passenger. The apology, as reported by Hawaii News Now: "We deeply apologize to Ms. Yamauchi and her son for this experience. We are refunding her son's ticket and providing a travel voucher. We are also working with our gate staff to prevent this from happening again."

The flight attendant's shrug sent the same message as the question "who did you speak to last?" That message: "I am an employee, not the brand. This isn't my mess-up or my responsibility."

As always in cases like this, it's a failure of internal communications. Stockholders might literally own a brand, but employees—from the C-suite to the customer-service level—are the brand. This sense of unity and shared responsibility needs to be communicated up and down the line, over and over again. At the very least, basic kindness will take root in an organization—not a bad trait to have while the world hungers for the next trending story.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI