Project Description

Negative Press and Narrative Balance: A look at the U.S. airline industry

Photo by Thomás Del Coro on Flickr

 

May 11, 2017
By Reinhard Cate and Spencer MacColl

 

The last few months have been unforgiving for the airline industry, as nearly every week a new story emerges of a viral fiasco. United, Delta, American, the carriers are often interchangeable, but each brand is impacted differently by the negative beliefs about their industry and their level of association within them. The narratives about the airline industry highlight a critical takeaway for any company or organization: it’s imperative to energize and protect your brand by understanding the narrative landscape around it. For passengers and consumers, narratives provide a compass that if heeded can ultimately guide them to the best experience.

 

Behind the Analysis

To better understand the deeper values around air travel and the airlines themselves, we utilized the Protagonist engine to ingest over 100,000 stories into a machine learning model that identifies the most important narratives in the airline industry, and then quantifies them in terms of their impact and trends over time. We discovered a landscape highly driven by events, but where positive brand level association came down the basics of any solid and healthy brand: customer outcomes.

 

The Narrative Landscape

Dueling groups of narratives about the airline industry dominate this landscape. The narrative with the largest narrative impact is highly negative and as expected focuses on many of the recent incidents that have driven coverage of the industry, called Travel Nightmares. The essence of this belief is as follows:

 

“I used to love to travel, but now I’m not sure the experience will be worth the risk. The big carriers have a monopoly on flying in the U.S. and they only care about making a quick buck. This focus on profit means that passengers are on the bottom of the food chain, whether that’s hiking up fees for luggage, entertainment, and drinks, or cutting legroom to cram as many people on board as possible. And things get much worse if something goes wrong, aggressive and rude staff don’t care about your experience or accommodating a passenger’s needs, regardless of how much you’ve paid for your ticket – it’s an absolute nightmare.”

 

The airline industry itself is the key villain within the narrative, but what’s equally important is the clear expression about the beliefs of the villain. The reason the passenger experience is terrible is not by chance, it happens deliberately to maximize profit. While a direct focus on the airline as a villain is consistent across the negative narratives, the beliefs around the airlines’ intent differ. The negative narrative Outages and Incompetence focuses on major disruptions to air travel, but missing within this narrative is the belief that the pain point felt by the passenger is done intentionally. Instead, a lack of technical prowess leaving the carrier behind the times combined with the view that staff are inefficient or even worst incompetent, is the driver of the negative customer outcome.

 

 

Customer Experience Resonates Strongly

While the negative narratives have the highest impact overall, it’s clear the landscape isn’t simply black and white, instead each reflects a gradient of sentiment toward the carriers. Several neutral narratives focus on strategies and aspects of air travel, rather than on the any specific carrier or the industry itself. For example, the neutral narrative, Social Media, the customers shield emphasizes the importance of technology and social media in holding the industry to account. It pushes a belief that if everyone that travels use apps and websites that rate and carriers by their level of customer service, ultimately the passenger experience will improve. In this narrative, technology is the hero keeping the airlines with terrible service at bay and rewarding good carriers that provide positive experiences. Additionally, the positive narrative Happy Customer equals Successful Carrier focuses on the perks, benefits, and positive experiences that come as a result of an airline focusing on positive customer outcomes.

 

The negative narratives in the landscape generate the highest amount of social engagement. Travel Nightmare garnered almost as much social sharing as the next three narratives combined. The high level of audience resonance shouldn’t come as a surprise, with the success of Yelp, Trip Advisor, Amazon and the rating system associated with nearly every product or business, airing grievances especially significant ones will get more attention than singing praise. It’s clear from the data, that a bad experience invokes a much more emotive response and one that resonates significantly higher across social media.

 

 

Major Disruptions Fuel Negative Narratives

Events that generate press and interest will deeply shape a narrative landscape and this is incredibly clear with the airline industry. The largest spike, driven by Travel Nightmare is a result of the United Airlines incident in Chicago last month, which generated discussion about the details of the event itself, but also furthered the greater narrative outlining the incident as part of a greater problem with United as a company. We can also see that the length of time per a negative narrative spike in this landscape lasts roughly three months. Whether it’s time decay, or further driven by the news cycle’s focus the most damage can happen quickly, so it’s imperative to react and counter a negative narrative as soon as possible.

 

 

A similar spike that began in August due to a major Delta outage was driven by the narrative Outages and Incompetence. Despite the clear focus on the heavily negative events within the landscape, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the airline industry. Spikes in conversation driven by positive narratives also play a major role in the landscape. A 2016 report by JD Power finding that satisfaction with airlines was at its highest in a decade drove a spike in Happy Customer equals Successful Carrier and a small spikes in both July of 2016 and February of 2017 are driven by the positive narrative Innovations and the Future of Travel, which focuses on the technology driven updates and benefits to flying that can make the experience better for all passengers. United, Delta and American all have high narrative association with these positive events.

 

What’s even more critical for each airline is understanding their overall association in each positive, neutral, and negative narrative especially those that drive the highest share of narrative impact. We examine the average association of the major carriers within each of the buckets of narratives: positive, negative, and neutral. It’s a simple way of looking at what carrier is most associated with what narrative or if you want to look at it another way: who’s winning and who’s losing.

 

 

United Airlines has the highest negative-narrative footprint which means, when a negative narrative is expressed, United Airlines is mentioned 80% of the time. United is most associated with the narrative Travel Nightmare fueled by their now infamous forced removal of a passenger last month. It is key to look at the narrative balance of an airline (or any company for that matter) as a buffer to negative events. If an airline has a balanced narrative landscape, the public response to an incident or outage on average will be more forgiving than if the airline is predominately associated with negative narratives.

 

For example, every airline has experienced outages and cancellations but the ones that have balanced company narratives see the shortest negative media cycle, lowest news volume, and least negative engagement. When we look at Delta’s narrative balance versus United’s, we can see a more equitable share of association among positive, negative, and neutral narratives. If we break down a different comparison of total mentions only rather than a weighted share, of the time United is associated with a narrative 71% of it is a negative one, while for Delta this association is only at 56%.

 

The impact and shorter length of the Delta incident on its brand reputation was minimized thanks to a healthier presence within positive narratives. It’s also important to note that the circumstances behind any incident can tilt the narrative association even more negative, which is evident in the passenger removal incident, but it’s the speed and attitude that color a response will also determine whether the narrative association ends there or snowballs into a narrative that is even more emotive and negative.

 

The Narrative Takeaway

For the airline industry the takeaway is simple: resolve negative events when they come as fast as possible and focus your brand association in positive narratives to energize and defend your brand. It’s critical to avoid becoming a villain and in this landscape there are ample opportunities to provide positive customer outcomes that will make you a passenger’s hero.

 

For the rest of us, there’s also a positive takeaway. With today’s technology that is constantly improving, everyone can now use research to plan and strategize cost effective travel and there are a ton of resources available, Points and Deals the only way to Travel is a narrative chalked full of this content.

 

Do your research and pick carriers that have benefits and an experience that match precisely what you’re looking for, whether that’s a focus on the airport experience and the in-betweensStreamlining Airports and Beyond, or for the cheapest possible flight from point A to point B, Budget Air, You get what you pay for. Regardless of what you look for remember in today’s interconnected narrative landscape the narrative Social Media the customers shield, highlights very directly something you should always keep in mind: other customers be it returning or potential are always watching, and no company wants to be the villain of a narrative. Happy Travels!

Reinhard Cate

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