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Social Media - Instant Message

The impact of social media presents interesting challenges to airline crisis communication strategy

When a Qantas Airbus A380 returned to Singapore following an engine failure over Indonesia, the airline had to wait until the aircraft had landed safely before it could issue a formal release explaining what had happened.

“By then, social media networks were alive with rumors that the A380 had crashed, and they were showing photos of Qantas branded debris, which had already been recovered by locals on the ground,” explains John Bailey, Managing Director of Singapore-based public relations consultancy Icon International.

“Qantas did ultimately use its own social media sites to engage with online audiences, but it lagged behind the main story.”

Old hands in crisis communications used to refer to the “golden hour”—the crucial breathing space between an event and the first official statements. Airlines now are lucky to get a golden minute. Crisis communication strategy has changed forever.

Behind the times

Bailey agrees the development of Twitter and other social media channels such as YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook have made airline crisis communications planning far more challenging. He points out that these challenges are not core to the strategy itself, however. “A social media site is simply a channel like any other, through which an airline can engage with audiences that are important to it,” he says. What you need to do still holds true. How you need to do it is another matter.

There are some big differences between social media and more traditional communication tools, though, including their immediacy, their interactive nature, and a perception of “amateur” as opposed to professional reporting.

The real-time impact of social media has drastically reduced the time available for airlines to respond effectively. When US Airways flight 1549 ditched into New York City’s Hudson River, the first tweet came only two minutes after the accident—from someone heading out on a ferry to rescue the survivors. A picture was put on the Flickr site seven minutes later. By the time the airline made its first statement 50 minutes after the ditching—incredibly quick by traditional standards—Google was showing more than 400 links to online coverage.

Social media’s interactive nature also presents a challenge. An online audience can respond and even control the direction and tone of the conversation. Airlines can find content quickly spirals out of the comfort zone with peer-to-peer opinion. A private user can speculate; an airline cannot. And recent research by Convergys has found that one negative customer review on YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook could cost a company up to 30 customers.

Airlines must also decide on the tone of their messaging. Social media users are generally young, their conversations relaxed and informal. A corporate message dealing with a serious incident smacks of square pegs and round holes.

Effective tools

Despite these considerations, Todd Blecher, who leads Boeing’s social media work, insists that airlines shouldn’t distance themselves from social media during a crisis. “Their immediacy, reach, affordability, and direct contact with global audiences make social media channels an important tool for effectively addressing a crisis and preserving an organization’s reputation,” he says.

 “I see no inherent disadvantages to using social media for crisis communications,” he continues. “The peculiarities of it, such as the fleeting nature of tweets, which require sustained effort, are simply operating adjustments that communicators need to make.”

If speed of comment can be used to an airline’s advantage, so can interactivity. Qantas managed to change the tone of online conversations during the engine incident before the day was out. It backed up its efforts by quickly making CEO Alan Joyce available and releasing the cockpit recording to show the captain’s skill in dealing with the situation.

Slowly, tweets and messages became more supportive, applauding the work in landing the aircraft safely and dealing with the aftermath of the incident. Just as negative comments were amplified at first, so the positive content eventually hit louder notes.

Analysis has backed up Qantas’ social media efforts during the engine incident. Online specialists SR7 said Qantas had done a good job of engaging with people and responding to criticism but accepted that protecting the brand and its reputation after such an incident is difficult. Andrew Butcher, Principal of communications group Butcher & Co, also commended Qantas, saying the airline had done everything it could to avoid long‑lasting damage.

One reason Qantas was able to stem the tide and turn it in its favor was because it already had a good online presence. If a Facebook page is well established it becomes a natural channel. It is difficult to build a credible online presence in the midst of a crisis. Experience is the key: don’t use these channels for crisis communications without first understanding social media.

Blecher notes the reverse is equally true. “An organization using social media for crisis communications needs to have an established crisis communications team,” he points out. “It should be staffed by technical experts, communicators, legal representatives, disclosure experts, and brand managers.”

An addition, not an alternative

Providing extra channels for communication naturally comes at a price. The cost involved depends on an individual’s airline strategy, but even a comprehensive plan shouldn’t break the bank. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube are easy to use. They don’t require a great deal of training.

More important is deciding what needs to be achieved. Airlines need to monitor online conversations, and decide when and where it is appropriate to engage a particular audience.

British Airways (BA) has a dedicated in-house digital media team. The airline says social media provides important channels to the business all year round. During the ash cloud crisis these channels were used to guide customers to news and developments hosted on The first tweet was sent out by BA just moments after the airspace shutdown had been announced. The airline reports that, because the online team is only one part of the communications mix at BA, it was relatively straightforward to communicate relevant news to the public during the crisis.

The experience prepared it well for the Heathrow shutdown in December 2010 when snow forced BA to cancel thousands of flights.

The learning curve will continue to be steep. Icon’s John Bailey concludes that social media is constantly evolving, and is likely to head off in new directions and pose unforeseen challenges. “This has been a feature of the development of this medium since day one,” he says.

Airline communicators will need to keep on top of these developments and be alive to the challenges and opportunities being created. 


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