By Teresa Valerio Parrot
April 26, 2017

“Did you hear the latest about United?” These days, that question sounds like a late night talk show host’s setup for a joke and a rimshot.

The unsettling video of an injured passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight has barely faded from our memories, and now the Internet is lighting up with stories of Simon, the unusually large rabbit who died on his way to Chicago O’Hare Airport (also prime for a joke).

But perhaps all of us amateur jokesters should step away from taking the cheap shot when the airline is down. Before we crack our knuckles and start to type up our epic tweets, let’s challenge ourselves to be better—better informed and better consumers of information.

Americans have been talking about the proliferation of fake news since the 2016 presidential election, and perhaps it is time for each of us to ask if we are contributing to this trend through our own social media habits. Sharing a link, tweeting a story, or posting an opportunistic meme do little to inform a conversation if the details of the initial story are later disproven. Before damning United, we should ask ourselves a few questions:

Do we know the details?

We must look for more evidence than a cellphone video or one person’s account. As we’ve all experienced when following breaking news stories, there are often multiple sides to a situation. Additional layers of information and perspectives are helpful to clarify if a story is worthy of outrage or would instead be better met with an expression of sympathy.

United told the New York Times it is “saddened” by the rabbit’s death and is investigating what happened.

Is there a greater context?

Once I heard of Simon’s death, I noticed the proliferation of headlines that cited United’s ranking of first in animal deaths in 2016. Instead of following this clickbait, I looked up statistics for United’s safety record when transporting animals, and I used sources beyond those with emotion-filled headlines.

Yes, United had the highest number of animal deaths in the U.S. in 2016, but I found the numbers reported quite interesting: Nine animals died while being transported by United (this number includes deaths by natural causes), and over 109,000 animals were transported safely. Even one animal dying is cause for concern, but static data in an inflammatory online post doesn’t provide insight into what happened or context for the numbers behind the headlines.

Are we balancing our perspective?

I have been intrigued by recent conversations about United’s performance among my friends and family. In some conversations, I’ve pushed my acquaintances to cite their sources. They have sheepishly responded that they got their information from friends’ social media posts and media pundits known for scandalizing situations. Don’t be afraid to visit credible news sites or perform general Google searches to round out what you are reading.

Does United’s response make sense?

Here is where United can learn from its past. Blaming those impacted rarely works. Talking solely about policies and procedures doesn’t suggest you care about your customers. And leading with anything but compassion and concern is never a good bet when details are still scarce. Framing a tragic situation appropriately, being humane, and saying it is sorry can never lead a company astray when it is in the crosshairs of a crisis.

In the end, perhaps the condemnation of United for Simon’s death will be justified. But until we have more information, I suggest holding off on presuming guilt or innocence. I’ll let you decide if you think United deserves it, but as someone who tries to balance perspectives for a living, I’m holding off on passing judgment.

Teresa Valerio Parrot is principal of TVP Communications.

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