With the advent of social media came the idea that companies could interact with more customers on a personal level. Though social media can be used as a promotional or advertising tool, its critical functions are to connect with audiences and gauge sentiments. When companies neglect to monitor their social media, they run the risk of missing a critique of their service or product that may develop into a bigger conversation, and eventually a crisis. US Airways recently learned first-hand how customer reactions on social media can turn into crises.
On a US Airways flight to Charlotte on October 9th, Staff Sergeant Albert Marle asked a flight attendant if he could please hang his uniform jacket in the first class closet. The attendant declined, and though Marle did not protest much, those in first class were bothered. It later came out that the closet was full, but onlookers and the public were still upset because the flight attendant responded rudely.
From the flight attendant’s point of view, the situation ended on the plane. However, Brian Kirby, a passenger in first class, snapped a picture of Marle and took to Twitter.
Do not fly US Air, I have just witnessed a US soldier heavily decorated disgraced. Will be sharing with other media outlets ASAP.
— Brian Kirby (@Bkirby72) October 9, 2014
Though replies to Kirby’s tweet varied between support for the soldier and disdain for Marle asking for special treatment, there was an overwhelming sentiment of contempt towards the US Airways employee’s tone and response.
Later, first class passengers Cliff Autrey and Jon Dalhlberg recounted the story to WSOC in Charlotte.
When US Airways caught wind of the situation the following day, they responded to Kirby on Twitter, but it was evident that they were in no position to simply resolve the situation privately; the backlash on Twitter continued:
— Deb (@auntdeb59) October 10, 2014
@USAirways 15 tours of duty and he couldn't get his coat hung. Offer him a free trip and I will be done.
— Brian Kirby (@Bkirby72) October 9, 2014
After two days of negative attention, US Airways issued a public statement, expressing regret at having disrespected a decorated soldier:
“We apologize for the situation, and we are reviewing it internally. We have a long and proud history of serving our military members and hold the men and women who serve our country in the highest regard.”
US Airways learned an important lesson. In permitting the story to attract attention for three days, it developed into a rapidly-growing crisis. The situation could have been resolved by simply staying ahead of the news and letting the public know they were in the process of mitigating the problem.
As soon as US Airways addressed their public’s concerns, the chatter about them quieted down. Sometimes, what the public is waiting for is acknowledgment of the issue and a suggested solution, accompanied most often by an apology.
During a crisis, an apology is often expected. This crisis may have been resolved much faster, if not completely avoided, if there was someone constantly monitoring US Airways’ Twitter account. It might seem difficult to look at every comment, but it is essential to keep track of the feedback the company is getting from its customers.
Companies, like people, are not perfect. They make mistakes, but the importance lies in tackling the crisis, even if tackling it means letting it die down. In this case, US Airways needed to understand that it could not fly away from this problem. They had to approach the situation and their audience carefully and apologize. More importantly, they should have been more aware of their consumer climate. After all, social media is one of the most efficient ways to gauge sentiments and react to any disgruntled customer.
Companies in all industries should use social media not only as a means to connect, but also to assess performance. If every company was assertive during a crisis, and approached their public with an apology (if appropriate) and a suggested solution or plan of action, they would have fewer crises and happier, more engaged customers.
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