What No Social Media Dashboard Can Provide You With: Common Sense

Last week I, like many others, watched the video taken by an Army sergeant who was on a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta with 13 of his fellow armed forces compatriots where they voiced their displeasure regarding their airline’s bag policy. Forced to pay out $2800 to cover extra bag fees,  the servicemen used social media to vent about the way they were treated. Almost instantaneously, their video went viral.

The airline, faced with a wave of negative sentiment towards their company, announced via press release that they would change their policy effective immediately to allow for 4 bags in coach and 5 in business class. As I watched this unfold I sent a DM question to a serviceman on twitter who mentioned that all major airlines’ policies were exactly the same as the one being skewered. So was this an instance of a single company being hung out to dry due to angry servicemen unfamiliar with a policy that spanned across all of the airlines or does this go deeper?

Short answer is the obvious one: it goes much deeper.

Corporate sustainability revolves around three variables:

  • People
  • Planet
  • Profit

Social media adds a foundational bullet to the 3 P’s:

  • Prudence

In this specific instance, a company used a policy that to the many observers would have remained   status quo for as long as nobody complained. In the context of social media, negativity around a brand based on voices or venues is utilized as a textual watch dog. When issues flair up, with enough volume behind it, corporate social media teams become alerted which leads to fire drills in conflict resolution. While I’m certain their social media monitoring platform did an effective job in creating awareness of a quickly growing situation, and while I can not complain with how the airline ultimately resolved the issues at hand, I tend to go back to policy as the root of their issues.

At some point there was an interaction between humans. One group were soldiers flying the airline as customers. The other were employees of the airline dealing with 13 frustrated soldiers who were coming from war, attempting to get home to see their families. While maximizing profits seems to be an obvious course of any corporation’s action, the lost ROI on not doing the “right thing” due to the enforcement of rules is evident across the myriad of comments that were a result of charging the soldiers.

One such comment has received a mass amount of attention:

“I’m a Vietnam vet and will never fly ___ airlines again unless all of the fees are returned. I don’t care what your policy is and it is an insult that you would even quote them on your blog.”

A decision was made to comply with a rule that lead to the situation the airline found itself in. But what if policies like this were met with more flexible parameters? For example, I look to Best Buy whose use of curating a corporate Water Cooler to get a pulse for discussions between employees has lead to a better understanding of issues they may never even know exist. By treating their own employees as customers, Best Buy can manage and in many cases, get ahead of problems.

Furthermore, Zappos makes customer service a core value of the company. To quote from their website:

Customer Service Isn’t Just A Department! We’ve aligned the entire organization around one mission: to provide the best customer service possible.

Social media is a “bottom-up” paradigm in approach to communicating with your customers. Critiques and praise will most likely start in a local setting and rise quickly depending on the context.  The radical (and sometimes volatile) nature of social marketing can move at such a velocity, it can bring a company to its knees; case in point – the airline checked off every channel they could from Facebook, to Twitter to their own corporate blog in their reaction to the crisis they faced. They even used empathy as the author of their blog was a military spouse. To stress, their response to the crisis was very good in my opinion. However it’s the crisis itself that could have been avoided, had listening to their employees in conjunction with providing an agile means of resolution to avoid the hailstorm of negativity they received been put in place.

Eating a $2800 bill is a hard one to swallow. But as of today there are 1,580,255 active military personnel (according to Wikipedia) in the U.S. alone. The aggregate power of choice in airline carrier could do much more damange than $2800, and I think that’s the point. The predictability of social media monitoring services are good, in some instances, great. But they can’t drive the business decisions to avoid crisis like the one detailed in my blog post. Only humans can accomplish that.


  1. NotFromDetroit · June 13, 2011

    Deep inside every major corporation are closets that nobody wants opened. Even great leaders inherit policies the public does not and will not appreciate. Often, these leaders don’t even know that these policies exist until it it’s a public crisis. With great scale often comes overbearing process. And while we can all look to the power of Zappos, the harsh reality is that most corporate cultures are not built on exemplary service and empowered employees.

    The shift towards an agile infrastructure (and an empowering culture) that would resolve a crisis before it occurs will take time. In today’s world of instant memes and a culture that lives and breathes in the moment, external communications teams will take the brunt of the blow. But great communications can’t solve for a poor product experience. And this is why I LOVE that you’re putting social into the corporate sustainability discussion. It’s got to go deeper if it’s going to be real.

  2. Ralph Paglia · June 13, 2011

    I like what Scott is drawing out in this post, especially the requirements for corporate prudence in a new world being so heavily impacted by bottom up communications and sentiment expression. Scott’s final point about the size of the audience being impacted in this airline example really brings it home for me. I cannot see changing policies based on what one customer expresses that is effectively an aberration of what the majority might perceive. However, with a class of customers as big as US Military who use airlines so frequently, and who have the overwhelming empathetic support of the vast majority of American consumers, that changes everything from a “gripe” to a major issue. I agree with Scott that the airline responded both prudently and effectively. Great example of social media being used to better guide policy.

    • Craig Daitch · June 13, 2011

      I think you meant Craig, not Scott. Craig: No bowtie. Scott: bowtie. 😉

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