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How a Good Communications Policy can Avert a Social Media Crisis (and Actually Get You Customers)

United has already earned its place in history as the airline that breaks guitars, producing, back in 2009, one of the first social media crises, costing it untold amounts in dropped share value and, arguably, its first bloody nose in public. 

Yes, there is a book

There seems to be something in the company’s DNA that makes it difficult for them to learn, as it's since gone on to lose a 10-year-old-girl and, just very recently, turn what should have been an internal matter covered by the company’s staff regulations into yet another social media crisis that has sparked furious debate about corporate sexism - and has left many of their customers unhappy as a result. 

To avoid turning this into yet another post bashing what has now become the corporate equivalent of a piñata, the real question here is how could United have done things differently? 

Every company has hundreds of rules which, over time, end up being either outdated or cross some new social norm line. It's next to impossible - and counterproductive - to constantly revise them, which is why each company hires people to enforce them over, let’s say, a robotic assistant who could probably recite rules and regulations verbatim with greater ease. 

People are great at communicating because they can do what robots can’t right now: 

  • Assess each situation based upon real-world knowledge and gauge potential impact
  • Understand context and intent better than any robot
  • Explain things in a manner that doesn’t lead to escalation

That United Airlines employees on-site, at the airport, and the handlers of the company’s Twitter account, failed in this regard doesn’t render them less human. It does however make the company more liable in terms of its existing corporate communication guidelines. 

People, unlike robots, respond to the environment they're in - they're guided by their sense of support that's made available by those who lead them, the responsibility they feel is invested in them, and their awareness of the context of their decision-making in terms of the goals of the company they work for. 

The fact that none of this kicked in, in this context, highlights how many companies are content to tick check boxes governing employee development and behavior. This leaves them vulnerable to the moment when one of their arcane regulations will trigger social media activists. 

But even at that point, not all is lost provided the company has:

  • A credible social media monitoring strategy in place
  • A playbook that allows them to respond quickly and adequately to social media trigger moments
  • A strategy for getting ahead of the story before it escalates out of control and becomes a full-blown social media crisis

Again, United is not alone in being proven to be deficient here - there are many other offenders of many different sizes.

So how could it all have been averted? The formula, as it turns out, is actually pretty simple.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

A good communications policy doesn’t just relegate particular people to particular communication channels. In an age where any employee’s conduct, anywhere, can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation, having overall guidelines in place that allow employees to exercise human judgment - as opposed to rigid, robotic implementation -  can go a long way towards taking context into account. 

In the age of communication, it would appear that most companies forget how to actually communicate. A real communications policy is not merely a set of rules on what to say and when to say it, it actually takes into account the company’s ethos, its aims, the enthusiasm of its staff and the specific interests of its customers to create a Venn Diagram of overlapping concerns where real communication takes place.

A good communication policy then can be reduced into a set of guidelines that:

  • Always reinforce the company’s core values
  • Bridge the divide between employees and customers
  • Allow customers to get a sense of how ‘good’ a company is
  • Create human touchpoints along the customer’s journey
  • Allow employees and customers to have a sense of a shared journey
  • Reinforce customer loyalty and a sense of trust in the company’s brand

Within that context, communication is not something that’s imposed by a company that has a corporate character and an image to protect, it should be part of what a company does on both sides of the customer facing divide.

It should engender empowerment, trust, and responsibility in its employees, as much as it should create a sense of loyalty, trust, and enthusiasm in its customers. Anything less than that is just a ticking time bomb waiting to explode the next time some company rule or regulation comes up and needs to be applied. 

Join The Conversation

  • David Amerland's picture
    Jun 8 Posted 2 weeks ago David Amerland

    Clearly this is an airline with some deeply embedded staff training issues and a culture that's fundamentally flawed. The latest incident, involving a musician and her 17th century fiddle shows that lessons have not been learnt.

  • David Amerland's picture
    Apr 11 Posted 2 months ago David Amerland

    Well, I think the topic by now hardly needs another introduction but here: 

    And to top it off, the global outrage wiped almost $1 billion off the Airline's value.


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