Managing a Social Media Crisis: What Can We Learn from US Airways?

Every company should have a social media presence. Not only is it an integral part of content marketing and search engine optimization, it is fast becoming an indispensable part of customer service. You can quickly resolve customer issues and end up turning a negative experience with your business into a positive one that actually engenders some brand loyalty going forward. Furthermore, this is all happening in public, so if others see it, they will see your organization’s great values in action. The flip side is that when you fail at using social media as an extension of how you handle customer service, it is also public.

As a general rule of thumb, people are more interested in the negative than they are the positive, so one negative experience will get more publicity than a single positive experience. As a company looking to bring your business into the 21st century, you need to be aware of the fact that you need to be actively earning lots of good will so that you can weather the storms that eventually will happen to even the best of us. Laying the groundwork now gives you the credibility to dig yourself out of any hole you may find yourself in later!


US Airways had a Very Very Bad Day…

By now, practically everyone is familiar with the infamous tweet sent out by Tempe, Arizona based US Airways to an unhappy customer on April, 14, 2014. I won’t go into detail about the contents of the tweet, but let’s just say that it was such a graphic image that it was immediately apparent that it did not reflect the true feelings of the airline. It also managed to completely overshadow the announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners! So what exactly happened?

It all began with a female passenger letting US Airways know that she did not appreciate them leaving her plane sitting on the runway for an hour longer than it should have in order to address the weight of the plane being too high. She did not get an immediate response, so she continued to vent her frustration on the internet. Eventually US Airways did respond by letting her know they too do not like delays and are sorry that she was inconvenienced. She expressed her doubts about the company’s sincerity, so they responded by letting her know where she could send a more detailed account of what happened so someone within the company can make sure this is less likely to happen in the future.

This is all wonderful except for the fact that the tweet was accompanied by a very pornographic picture. Ultimately this image was left in the twitter timeline for an hour and was shared almost 500 times before they noticed what was wrong and deleted the tweet. People had a field day with the pictures; of course this went viral and became mentioned in the mainstream media as well. Needless to say, this was the most publicity US Airways has seen in a very long time. On the bright side, the company gained thousands of new twitter followers! On the not so bright side, no one wants to think of an industry that involves public safety as being incompetent or classless. It’s uniquely terrible for the brand.


Facing it Head On but Not Overreacting

US Airways’ first action was exactly what you would expect: they issued a tweet apologizing for what happened and promised to investigate how something like this could happen. This became their most re-tweeted and favorited post, so they were off to a good start.

Now onto the matter of accountability…we have all been trained to expect that some lowly employee will get the axe when a company is embarrassed publicly. Someone must take the fall, except no, not really. US Airways did the less expected but perfectly reasonable thing by not firing the employee. The mistake was discovered to be the result of an honest mistake. The offending image was posted onto US Airway’s twitter feed. The person managing their social accounts flagged it for removal, and while multitasking with answering customer complaints, this…thing happened.

By not firing the employee, they reinforce the message that this really was just an accident, and in a tough economy where more people feel the pain and insecurity of job loss, many will take not treating people as disposable as an admirable stance. Unfortunately, we live in some very cynical times where there is a gulf between consumers and just about any organization seeking their attention; any opportunity to express the human side of a business or organization should never be missed.


So what do we Take Away from this?

Though it is becoming rare, there still are some companies that shudder at the thought of engaging the public through social media. Some industries are inherently more prone to this way of thinking, especially those that rely on reputation, competence, and professionalism. The worst nightmare is having one false move online ruin all hard work. The good news is that is not really the case. Genuine gestures online can heal self inflicted wounds. There is probably no social media accident you can’t come back from.

An unhappy customer is a customer you already fought hard to get; losing them due to you not being available to answer their questions through social media is a bad move. It is a lot cheaper to keep a customer with good customer service than to lose one and try to win over a new one. Having a real active and engaged social media presence that does not simply deal with positive feedback is a requirement now.

Begin by planning for how you will address sticky situations like the one US Airways recently endured. There should be a plan in place for how every single tweet is composed and posted. Make sure your PR and legal departments are all aware of how your social media team operates-they may be needed later!

Select the right tools for the job. On the low end of the scale, you can simply check for mentions and decide how to respond. You can also invest in more robust tools that track mentions and provide other metrics. The right tools will make you more efficient at identifying the needs of your consumers even if they are not directly tweeting at you.


The Aftermath

It is very likely that good tools for social media automation and well thought out practices would have made this scandal less likely to happen, but (eventually) removing the X rated picture and apologizing to all offended while not overreacting seems to have paid off so far. About a week after the incident, most passengers were back to caring more about the cost of flying than a social media faux pas. With social media marketing and customer service, you have to mind your Ps and Qs, but even if you do make mistakes, you can turn those into opportunities to show what you are made of.


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