Is there some curse on companies whose names start with U? United runs into one brick wall after another, whether passengers are assaulted, two girls with free passes to fly are banned from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings, or a formerly healthy giant rabbit was turned into a DOA delivery.

Then there's Uber, with the sexual harassment charges, employees looking to jump ship, and its CEO's leadership problems. The company has become one public relations disaster after another, as though instead of working on a self-driving car (with a Google sibling company claiming Uber stole the technology, no less), it's developed AI systems that dig pits management can trip and fall into on a regular basis.

But for all this trouble, there are some happy faces -- at United's and Uber's rivals. The airline carrier's woes are music to Delta. For example, when the girls were forbidden to board while wearing their leggings (a third girl was able to go on because she had a dress in her carry-on she could wear over the leggings), United kept trying to defend the policy while critics on social media called the approach "sexist" and an attempt to police what female passengers wore. Delta responded with humor and an elegant tweet its social media group put together: "Flying Delta means comfort. (That means you can wear your leggings. :))"

Delta dismissed its rival, underscored what immediately became a competitive advantage, and was clever to boot. In the wake of the passenger dragged screaming off a United flight, Delta took heed of the criticism that United should have offered passengers more to get volunteers to stay over and take a flight the next day and raised the cap on what the airline would pay passengers to $2,000 for gate agents and up to $9,950 that a supervisor could offer. Eventually United would also raise its top rate, to $10,000, but that was too late. Delta nailed the race to some good PR.

As for Lyft, think back to January when Uber crossed a one-hour taxi picket of JFK Airport in New York arranged as a protest against the Trump travel ban executive order. That set off a #DeleteUber hashtag drive on social media. It wasn't until the next day that Uber pulled its foot out of its mouth and CEO Travis Kalanick announced a $3 million legal defense fund (whatever that actually ended up being) to help its drivers caught in the travel snare.

Lyft also was criticized by the taxi drivers' union. So, on Saturday, a full day before Uber responded, the company said on its blog that it would donate $1 million to the ACLU over a four year period. And then, according to Bloomberg, Lyft's ridership and bookings took a big jump in the first quarter. In other words, Lyft got a huge lift from Uber's one-two-three-four-five combination punch aimed at itself.

When a rival stumbles, it's possible to take an advantage that, while not necessarily permanent, can help position you going forward. Here are the things to remember:

  1. Wait until your competitor does something dumb and self-defeating. Don't waste your time with minor things that will create a drone of commentary everyone can easily ignore.
  2. Look for social media reaction. If you take aim and there's no one talking about the issue, it means no one cares and people won't pay attention.
  3. Be careful with your response. You can be earnest or even witty, but be sure the emotional content is tasteful, human, and appropriate. For example, had Delta and Lyft swapped the approach of their responses, the results would have been bad.
  4. Speed is of the essence. You need to have the right response, but timing is everything. You want to get in as things are building to a crest and then ride the wave.
Published on: May 3, 2017
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