The Role of Social Media in Airline Crisis Communication


My inspiration to write this blog w as based on a recent article authored by Ryan Cohn, Vice President of Sachs Media Group. How Social Media is Elevating Airline Crisis Communication

Over the years, we’ve all seen that social media has grown to become an essential communication tool used by airlines in managing emergency response crises. Why use social media in the first place? Well, what better way for an airline to be transparent about its actions than through sharing information and engaging with the public community.  It provides an opportunity for the airline to update people on events occurring during the crisis and what it is doing about those events. It is also way to involve the public and potential survivors by allow them to react to and even help resolve the crisis through real-time exchange of information. How can this be done effectively? The article provides examples of how some airlines have used social media effectively while others failed on many levels. This can serve as guide on best practices as well as what not to do.

In the case of the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in July of last year, Asiana made some critical errors. Firstly, in the aftermath of the crash, it was silent for more than four hours until posting a standard tweet that thanked the public community for their concerns and conveyed that it was investigating into the matter and would update them. Then, this was followed two hours later by an equally indifferent press release, a point by which the public had already formed their opinions. The uncertainty about the situation fueled by truth mixed in with rumors ultimately called into question the airline’s credibility and took a major blow at its reputation. The problem was that Asiana did not do much to reassure the public that it had control over the situation.

The example above is contrasted by the proactive approach that Southwest Airlines takes in handling such situations. The Southwest Flight 345 had an uncontrolled, rough landing at LaGuardia Airport in July of 2013, and ten passengers were injured, six of which needed to be hospitalized. Within half hour of the incident, Southwest began releasing communication to the public via an official hashtag to reassure the interested public that it would actively inform them about what was happening. In this way, Southwest initiated the conversation by acknowledging what had happened, and then continued the conversation with ongoing updates. Remember, that a conversation works both ways; it is equally as important to listen and react to what other people have to say as it is to drive your messages. This behavior was not unexpected coming from Southwest, which has always been known for its active use of social media in crisis communications. In fact, the airline is also reputed for its internal practices of effective communication and employee empowerment. If a company is able to excel at this internally, then it should naturally be able to so for its customers, stakeholders and the public community. Ultimately, Southwest was able to win the trust of the public by taking control of the conversation and by displaying a sense of urgency. So long as such efforts are genuine and consistent, the public will buy into it.

In today’s digital age, it is easy for a crisis to spiral out of control. Once the initial piece of information about the crisis is out in the public domain, there is a tendency for it to spark numerous tweets, picture posts by plane survivors, not to mention all of these being picked up by news channels. But on the same token, all the real-time reporting generated from the various sources can be valuable to airlines. For example, it can provide confirmation that the plane involved in the incident in fact belongs to them, a process that would have taken up to an hour in the pre-social media era.

We’ve talked about how social media is a powerful listening tool to get insights from public and platform to constantly assure your public that you are taking action, but where exactly should all this take place? There are a plethora of social media platforms out there and many companies have presence in several of them. It can be very confusing for people to decide where to get their information if a company is using multiple channels to drives its messages and engage in a dialogue. In order to effectively deliver your message in a crisis situation, where time is of the essence, it is vital to limit the number of channels (keeping the most relevant ones) and then link those channels to a centralized repository of information. For example, you might have tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram photos that all feed into your website. This I believe is just as true for crisis communication as it is for digital strategies in general.

One may ask, how can an airline start sending out messages if it does not have a clear social media crisis plan? The answer to that is yes, an airline should have a plan indeed, but one that is flexible and adaptable to change. As Rachael Rensink, Manager of Social Marketing Strategy and Engagement at Delta Airlines put it, the process should involve plan, evaluate, test, re-evaluate, evolve, etc.

Social media is usually one of the pieces of a crisis communication plan and it is important to consider how it fits into the marketing mix. For example, at Delta crisis coordinators play a key role in working with various teams to determine the messaging while ensuring that communication is socially responsible, what the current conversations are and what needs to addressed.

Also, since crisis situations may extend days, weeks, or even months beyond the emergency phase, there will be people out there affected by the events who seek closure. Airlines should prepare to address such concerns by making genuine efforts in providing the necessary relief to such individuals so that they can move on with their lives.

The article talks about the importance of using proper hashtags.  This may sound trivial, but it is ever so important for an airline to establish a hashtag that is officially dedicated to the crisis. Doing so sends a signal to the public that this is the place to find information about the incident and that you own the conversation. Southwest did this by ending its initial tweet with “#Flight345”. Once people are aware of what the official hashtag is, they can easily look for it to track the developments. More importantly, the airline itself can easily track what information is being exchanged and take corrective measures as necessary.

In today’s world, social media is not just used as one-way communication tool. The goal is ultimately to engage the public, and empower them to find the solutions. As the article aptly puts it, “everyone is an amateur investigative reporter with the resources to find the truth, often before the brand owner even knows it.” Malaysian Airlines did this by crowd-sourcing its efforts through satellite imagery. Whether or not these efforts lead to solving the mystery remains to be seen, but one thing the airline and the authorities are doing right, amidst all the criticism directed towards their approach and the conspiracy theories floating around, is that they have made the citizens of the world feel part of the quest.



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