When Social Media Goes Astray

Brace yourselves, because haters are gonna hate, and trolls will never have anything better to do than to stir up trouble.  It’s no wonder that some companies still shy away from social media altogether, in favor of keeping their customer relations on a one-to-one basis rather than open themselves up to bad press on a public forum. 

Just as social media has become an open platform for free expression, no industry, brand or personality is immune from the backlash that can counter.  And the speed at which a controversy can erupt and spread is incredible.

The airline industry is often an easy target of disgruntled customers.  As a frequent flyer, I can sympathize with both distraught passengers and harassed airlines.  It’s when people feel like they’re not being heard that they take to social media, and today they are getting louder and smarter than ever.

Recently, one British Airways customer took his complaint to the next level.  Literally.  In a moment of frustration and creativity, he paid for a promoted tweet – a technique normally employed only by brands and services themselves.

Promoted Tweet

Unsurprisingly, the tweet was quickly circulated (within a few hours it had generated 25,000 impressions) and because of the customers extreme tactics, was picked-up by many media organizations.  At that point, what started as a single customer complaint had escalated to a social media crisis for the organization.

But the lesson here is that it didn’t have to.  There have been far more damaging social media faux pas  that companies have had to dig themselves out of.  In this instance however, the airline had already established Twitter as a channel dedicated to customer service, so should have expected complaints.  And the most important rule here is to respond immediately – even if it’s just an acknowledgment that you’re looking into the issue.


Beyond that, there are several key strategies to maintain your brand image and reputation on social media:

  • Make sure that you are constantly listening. Most social media mishaps happen when companies fail to ‘read the room’ and simply use it as a channel to push information.  And constantly, means whenever your customers are online.  It cannot be a 9-5 function (especially for British Airways where their customers are spread across multiple time zones).
  • Know when to take tweets seriously.  Are you talking to a troll looking to pick a fight, or a genuine consumer looking for your help?  Knowing your audience and using good judgment is once again needed.
  • Have a response plan in place, and a clear line of authority, for when issues inevitably arise.  Even if behind the scenes you are frantically deciding what to say and who needs to approve it, saying nothing can appear like indifference. Silence seems like a lifetime in cyberspace and will only add fuel to the crisis.
  • Consider enlisting the advice of objective social media experts as a preventative measure, as many organizations now do.

These might all sound like hefty investments, but it is surely justified to protect all the work that you’ve done building the brand, your social media voice, and your online audience to date.

And companies that avoid real-time conversations altogether are missing out on the opportunity here for a brand to show their true colors, and build trust when things get tough.  One brand’s silence then becomes an opportunity for their competitors, as @VirginAustralia demonstrated in one of my favorite Twitter wins during a Qantas strike.


Many feel that a social media crisis should be handled by PR professionals, and their expertise will certainly be essential when things get very publicly out of hand and bad press is being generated.  But on a day-to-day basis, I believe social media should be a tool for marketing to engage with consumers – both existing and potential.

A social media profile is also one of the best voices a brand has – beyond sharing information, every interaction should display the values and personality of the brand.  And if you’re listening, social media offers incredible insights into their customers, their concerns and life outside their relationship with the brand.  That’s extremely valuable to marketeers and should be tied into the overall marketing strategy of the organization.