A Turbulent Week For PR

Two PR crises from United and Wells Fargo have dominated the news cycle — but how have they played out on social media?

Within the past week, Wells Fargo and United Airlines faced major scandals. Wells Fargo was ordered to pay back millions over fake accounts while a brutal United Airlines video surfaced showing officers dragging a passenger off an overbooked plane. These brands continue to receive significant news coverage, but how has their perception played out over social?


In terms of social conversation volume, Wells Fargo seems to have gotten off easy compared to United Airlines. On April 10, conversation about United Airlines spiked 13x the volume compared to Wells Fargo and continues to rise, while discussion about Wells Fargo dropped to a quarter of its volume the day after April 10.

The impact on Wells Fargo

Although the Wells Fargo scandal appears to have a short-lived impact on social for the brand, sentiment tells a different story. Wells Fargo, despite its low volume relative to United Airlines, was discussed much more negatively on social, with negative posts spiking to nearly 60% on April 10. Fraud and greed are frequently woven into people’s posts about Wells Fargo with a general feeling of contempt for banks and Wall Street. But what’s even more concerning is some customers posting about closing their accounts due to the scandal. Negativity fell sharply for the brand 24 hours later — so is the Wells Fargo scandal just a blip?



Straight from consumers’ mouths

Despite a lower overall conversation volume, Wells Fargo experienced a larger spike in negative sentiment, as many consumers took to social to explicitly call out the brand and its controversy.

United affront

United Airlines’ sentiment is not nearly as negative, with only 25% of posts classified as negative on April 10. Boycotting United Airlines is the major theme on social media along with a general feeling of disbelief, bewilderment, and disgust. In fact, excluding neutral content, conversation classified as disgust makes up 30% of posts while anger makes up 34%.

Gallows humor

While the initial shock of United Airlines’ scandal caused a barrage of outrage on social, something interesting is also happening — their positive sentiment has started to slightly increase since April 10. What gives? Jokes. Humor is replacing outrage as the brand becomes the brunt of all social media jokes, videos, and memes — some even including jabs from competitors.

On April 11, two days after the video surfaced, the most retweeted post about United Airlines poked fun at a hypothetical new seating arrangement on UA flights, receiving over 90,000 retweets.
On April 11, two days after the video surfaced, the most retweeted post about United Airlines poked fun at a hypothetical new seating arrangement on UA flights, receiving over 90,000 retweets.

So who “lost the week” when it comes to a brand’s scandal on social? In the case of Wells Fargo and United Airlines, it depends. Wells Fargo wins in terms of staining their reputation as a trustworthy bank. However, their scandal appears to have been short-lived. But will their controversial practices prompt customers to switch banks or deter new customers from joining? Or did Wells Fargo just get lucky with United Airlines as a major distraction?
United Airlines, on the other hand, wins in terms of sheer volume and memorability. Their scandal continues to generate discussion at massive levels. Sentiment has also shifted slightly to become more positive – but for the wrong reasons. Sarcasm and humor may give people a laugh but how will their scandal impact their bottom line is a more serious problem. Just how pervasive will people boycott the brand or switch airlines? Social media can be used to better gauge and track this type of discussion to understand consumer perceptions and the impact on a brand’s performance.

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