Ask any expert about the impacts social media has had on public relations, big brands or customer service. Chances are the answer you’ll get will include at least one reference to the public relations disaster that befall United Airlines in 2009.
United Breaks Guitars
The story began in early 2008 when Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician, had his pricey guitar damaged by United Airlines baggage handlers. After speaking to dozens customer service representatives and failing to get the company to pay the $1,200 repair cost, Carroll wrote a song about his experience, recorded a video to go along with the song, and uploaded it on YouTube.
The video, United Breaks Guitars, quickly went viral, and the story was picked up and amplified by mainstream media. Carroll gave hundreds of interviews, telling everyone who cared to listen about his experience. The United Airlines’ executives tried to minimize the damage to the company’s reputation by finally agreeing to compensate the musician, but their efforts were too late. According to BBC, the airline’s share price dropped 10 percent shortly after Carroll’s video went viral.
It is much harder to estimate the longer-term damage that the incident has had on United Airlines’ brand. As for other big international brands, particularly in the airlines industry, they must have learnt that in the age of social media, negative customer experience can quickly escalate into a major PR disaster.
Aeroflot’s Fat-Cat Debacle
Well, the lesson appears to have been lost on Russia’s largest airline, Aeroflot. Over the last weeks, the company has experienced a public relations fiasco comparable to that of United Airlines a decade ago.
On October 30, Mikhail Galin missed his connecting flight in Moscow after Aeroflot check-in staff said his cat, Victor, was too heavy to travel in the cabin of the aircraft with him. The airline insisted that pets heavier than eight kilograms had to travel in the luggage hold. Galin’s furry friend was two kilograms above the limit. As the man later explained [ru] on Facebook, Victor was distraught by the first leg of the journey, a four-hour flight from Riga, Latvia’s capital, to Moscow. He feared that an eight-hour flight in the cargo hold to Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, would severely traumatize the cat.
Galin came up with an ingenious plan to get Victor accepted in the aircraft cabin. He posted the cat’s picture on Facebook and asked his friends to help him find Victor’s look-alike in Moscow. As soon as a similar looking but slimmer cat was found, Galin purchased a ticket to Vladivostok and had Aeroflot’s check-in staff weigh Victor’s look-alike and confirm that the pet was fit to travel in the cabin. Once Galin received his boarding pass, he parted with the impostor and his owner, and boarded the plane.
As Galin and Victor made it safely to Vladivostok, their story was widely shared and discussed on social media. Given the special status cats enjoy on the Internet as well as the fact that an estimated six out of 10 Russians own at least one cat, reactions to Galin’s cunning albeit legally shady scheme to ensure his cat travelled with comfort were overwhelmingly jubilant.
However, the mood was not shared by Aeroflot’s executives. Once the story was brought to their attention, they stripped Galin of his frequent flier status and cancelled all air miles that he had accumulated. The company issued a statement explaining its pet travel policies and accusing Galin of “deliberate violation” of these rules.
Aeroflot’s reaction sparked a huge social media outcry in Russia. Memes ridiculing Aeroflot’s rigid policies and supporting Galin took the country’s social media by storm (some of the best memes can be viewed here and here). Celebrities, athletes and politicians also weighed in, boycotting the company and sharing messages with hashtags that could be roughly translated as “pets are not luggage”, “let Viktor fly” and “we are all the fat cat”. Other airlines scored PR points against Aeroflot by offering Galin a special “feline VIP” frequent flier status. The man was also bombarded by offers of free cat food, spa treatments for Viktor, free stays in pet-friendly hotels and movie vouchers. The story became so big that even the country’s president was asked to comment on it.
Just like United Airlines did a decade ago, the Russian airline had a quick change of heart, apologizing for its rash response and offering [ru] Galin the company’s shares as compensation. And just as was the case with United Airlines, the move came too late to stop the wave of negative publicity and social media ridicule from causing serious damage to Aeroflot’s brand.
Lessons for Social Media and Customer Service Teams
The PR disasters experienced by United Airlines and Aeroflot will not prevent mishaps from happening. Baggage handlers will inevitably continue damaging baggage, while overworked and distressed check-in staff will continue alienating customers.
What these two fiascos should change, however, is the way big brands, both in the airlines industry and elsewhere, handle customer feedback on social media.
In the age of social media, companies should focus on building relationships with their customers and personalizing these relationships wherever possible. This approach calls for a departure from standard operating procedures that require customer service staff to act within the rigid boundaries of company policies, rules and standards. In other words, companies need to ensure that when their staff communicates to customers, particularly those with grievances, they sound like humans capable of empathy and emotion, rather than impassionate bureaucrats. As Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, a customer service and social media expert at Forrester Research suggests, brands should be aware of the “frustration customers feel with companies that act like monolithic monsters”.
This shift requires that companies invest in training their staff in positive customer service and empower them to make on-the-spot decisions that make customers happy, even if these decision do not always align to policies and rules. Or, as John Deighton, Professor at Harvard Business School puts it, brands “need to cultivate good judgement and free their employees to use it”.
When customers share stories of poor customer service on social media, companies should listen to and engage in these conversations before they get out of hand. Such engagement should aim at turning negative customer service experience into positive experience, while ensuring that this transformation is interesting enough for social media audiences to tune in.
For instance, management expert Bart Perkins suggests that instead of trying to buy off Dave Carroll after his video got viral, United Airlines could have mitigated the impact of the consequent PR disaster, while also scoring some positive publicity points, by employing the same tools that Carroll had used, namely creativity and humour. They could, for example, respond with a funny video of their own. They could also organize a content for best sung responses to Carroll and share the winning songs online. Perkins urges companies to remember that when a story that can potentially affect their brand is unfolding online, “by choosing not to engage, they are letting the opponent win all the debate points.”
Focus on the positive
Over the longer term, companies should focus proactively on creating positive customer experience and promoting positive offline experiences online. Negative stories are not likely to develop into PR calamities when they involve companies that are generally known to deliver good service. Besides, as customer experience expert Blake Morgan argues, companies that focus on the positive inadvertently encourage their customers to do the same.
I understand that while building relationships, engaging online and focusing on the positive should set companies on a good start, it is not enough to help them promote their brand and address negative publicity online. What else should companies do to adapt their customer service and public relations to the realities of the world increasingly saturated with social media? Do you know any companies that have successfully completed this transformation?