Social media gives power of one to the customer; service companies take note


Thinking back on the British Empire’s expansive history, what would have changed if, among other notable freedom fighters, Mahatma Gandhi had Twitter?

.@FreeIndia sees multiple British troops lining up against the #Mahatma. He sits in cross-legged defiance in the dirt. #peace #resistance bit.lyV876tr

And, minutes later:

Independence movement @FreeIndia grows exponentially. #Mahatma stands ground. British troops can’t move him. #wewin #peace. bit.ly7246zx

We enjoy such speculation after news that a disgruntled British Airways passenger Sunday dramatically re-introduced everyone to the power of one. He didn’t just tweet his displeasure to several hundred followers, he escalated the power of social media by paying for a promoted tweet. He then tweeted to all 302,000 British Airways followers about his anger over the loss of his luggage and the indifference he encountered from the airline.

[To those reading this and thinking, ‘See, we need to stay off Twitter,’ I’d suggest that while access to the 302,000 was a vulnerability, in the long run having those followers helps BA. At least if it knew how to use it effectively. More on that below.]

Gandhi would have been proud because the power of one is so robust. The customer protested — and thanks to my colleague Meredith Dropkin for sharing — according to The Business Insider:

“Don’t fly @BritishAirways,” the man with the handle @HVSVN wrote on Sunday evening. “Their customer service is horrendous.”

His tirade continued: “BritishAirways is the worst airline ever. Lost my luggage & can’t even track it down. Absolutely pathetic.”

He also wrote, “Thanks for ruining my EU business trip #britishairways. I shouldn’t have flown @BritishAirways. Never flying with you again.”

This of course quickly got out of hand for BA — which was glacial in its response, when it needed to be lightning quick. Mashable picked up on it and spread the word. Then other airlines even piled on.

JetBlue’s SVP  of marketing Marty St. George tweeted, “Interesting; a disgruntled customer is  buying a promoted tweet slamming a brand where they had a bad experience. That’s  a new trend itself!”

And then, finally Tuesday, like the world still moved by telegraph and steamship:

@HVSVN Sorry for the delay  in responding, our twitter feed is open 0900-1700 GMT. Please DM your baggage  ref and we’ll look into this.

— British  Airways (@British_Airways) September 3, 2013

Not exactly fast or satisfying. But don’t you love the British frostiness? Our Twitter feed is only open 9-5? What? Do you really think you control your Twitter feed? Not anymore you don’t; one guy just hijacked it like one of your pretty jumbo jets.

The lesson here is how an adaptable and savvy consumer base is learning to utilize the extremes of social media to empower and take control of some of life’s inconveniences.

On a much more significant level, the cases of Edward Snowden releasing word of the National Security Agency’s monitoring of Americans’ calls and emails and recently convicted Army private Bradley [Chelsea] Manning’s datadump to Wikileaks are far more dramatic and impactful examples.

But all these instances drive home the absolute necessity that companies that interact with consumers must prepare for social media-based emergencies, if not crises.

There is little doubt that airlines traditionally regarded lost bags as an industry norm, a “cost of doing business.” They as much said to their customers that if they didn’t like it, they could take the train. And, for anyone like @HVSVN, they’ve done little to improve their attitude or, it seems, procedures to improve performance. They are like newspapers that for decades were lulled into accepting that a certain percentage of their product just ended up in the bushes. No more.

One individual can sucker punch a whole multi-billion corporate in 140 characters or less.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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