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Social Media - Brave new world

Social media is a two-way street—especially in times of emergency

The bomb—carried by 20-year-old Magomed Yevloyev on behalf of the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate—exploded at approximately 13:30 GMT on 24 January 2011. It killed 37 people and injured over 150 others in the baggage claim area of the International Arrivals Hall at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport.

Just ten minutes earlier, Brussels Airlines flight 2535 had landed at the airport. The 88 passengers had dutifully filed off the aircraft and into the customs and immigration area. But that was as much as the airline knew. Had their customers made it through customs and immigration and been caught in the blast?

The airline corporate communications department became aware of the incident just seven minutes after the explosion. Rather than finding out from news feeds, it was via a Twitter message from one of its passengers. The team replied immediately but didn’t get any further communication. By then, the story was beginning to break, although information from the Russian authorities was minimal.

“It was crucial we found out what had happened to our passengers,” explains Geert Sciot, Vice President of Media Relations at Brussels Airlines. “But there was a lack of information and our staff were not allowed to enter the zone where the bomb exploded. The crew were still onboard the aircraft.”

Soon enough, they identified a few more Tweets from their passengers. Through these contacts they were able to gather information about other passengers, expanding their investigation person by person.

The airline was relieved to find out that the international passengers hadn’t made it through customs and immigration and were all safe. But the whereabouts of Russian passengers—using a different queue—was still unknown. In most cases, the airline didn’t have direct contact details as the bookings had been made via travel agencies.

It was obvious that social media was the key, however. The airline used its Facebook and Twitter accounts to find and contact its remaining customers. Ultimately, every single one of the 88 passengers was contacted via social media, including one on the business network site LinkedIn. All were safe and unharmed.

Several lessons emerged from the episode that have helped the airline refine its policy for social media as well as its crisis communications strategy.

Quality not quantity

“It underlined that social media isn’t just about communicating with the world,” says Sciot. “It is also about the world communicating with you. We couldn’t get any reliable information from the authorities during the first hour or two of the bombing. It was the passengers who told us what was going on and what was needed.”

But, says Sciot, this doesn’t mean social media is a way to achieve fast-track customer service. The channels should not be about avoiding queues or simply pushing for, and providing, an immediate response. “It is more about creating a community,” he says. “That is really the point of what happened to us. Instantly, a valuable community was created that allowed passengers and airline to help each other.”

It is not a numbers game either. Many reports on Facebook and Twitter automatically detail a friends or followers figure as if the value of the account is intrinsically linked to that number. “But we could double the amount of followers overnight with a competition,” Sciot suggests. “It’s very easy to expand your social media network. But we now know it is about creating a quality community and not an opportunistic community.”

The new reality

Even so, social media needs monitoring 24/7. As the Domodedovo incident showed, a vital message can come through at any time. Ensuring the Twitter and Facebook accounts come under the control of corporate communications, rather than viewing the channels only as a marketing function, also seems wise. It allows the airline to set the tone.

Crucially, monitoring and corporate communications guidance also provides the means to keep track of the news element to any story. Journalists now routinely use social media in crisis situations to contact eye witnesses. During the Domodedovo incident, Brussels Airlines’ passengers were in direct contact with news feeds, a situation that the airline couldn’t ignore.

In his study, Skyful of Lies and Black Swans, BBC presenter Nik Gowing states that there is still a long way to go before most companies become competent in the social media arena. “Few institutions of government and corporate power…readily understand and embrace this new reality, along with its profound implication for policy-making structures and effectiveness,” he notes. “Indeed, most actively resist [it] and remain way behind the curve.

“At the most extreme they even dismiss as a ‘Skyful of Lies’ the prolific real-time output from the new generation of ‘information doers’ and social media recording the unfolding events in a crisis,” he continues.

For Gowing, the challenge is to enter the information space with self-confidence and assertiveness however incomplete the understanding of the situation. Being too hasty or simply wrong is an “inappropriate fear” he says. Inaction, indifference and resistance exact a harsh price.

John Bailey, Managing Director of Icon International, warns against the ability of Twitter to correctly convey a message due to its limited functionality and advises it should be seen as part of a coordinated communication plan. “Twitter is an excellent tool for providing quick flash updates and telling followers where to find more information,” he says. “But the 140 character limit does not allow for context or explanation. The airline can use its website, Facebook page or YouTube channel as a primary communication tool in the same way it would distribute press releases or statements to conventional news media.”

Force for the good

Both Bailey and Sciot agree on the way forward. A comprehensive social media plan has to be devised and implemented before a crisis strikes. “One size does not fit all, so the strategy must be adapted to the specific circumstances, resources and operating environment of the airline concerned,” Bailey suggests. “If there is a shortage of internal resources, an external agency may be used to implement the policy, or to provide support with tasks such as monitoring and analysis of the conversations taking place on the web. But the communication strategy and messaging should come from the airline itself, whether in an emergency or during business as usual.”

Social media is providing airlines with much food for thought and there are as many wrong answers as there are right ones. But as the Domodedovo incident proves, in the right hands social media can be used as a force for good and provide a cutting-edge tool to deal with any emergency. Airlines must embrace the new reality.

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