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By Brian Obara

The mantra ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ might pass for sound wisdom in this cynical age but the inherent folly in it quickly becomes apparent when it’s a marketing campaign gone awry. Just ask Korean Air.

The North East carrier got quite a bit of stick recently when a notice on its website, that was supposed to create some buzz for its direct flights to Nairobi starting the 21st of June, described the ‘primitive energy’ of the Kenyan people as one of the country’s attractions.

Now ‘primitive energy’, as a phrase, is open to many interpretations. Unfortunately, none of them are all too flattering so cue the outrage and synchronized handwringing by Kenyans on social media sites. Kenyans on Facebook and Twitter are an excitable bunch but they are even more so when they are reacting to insults (perceived or otherwise) thrown at their collective self.

A flurry of angry Facebook and Twitter postings later and the airline quickly pulled the offending promo and issued profuse apologies. Muthui Kariuki, who is handling Korean Air’s PR in Kenya, has called ‘primitive energy’ phrasing an unfortunate mistake that was caused by an error in translation from Korean to English.

A teachable moment

Whatever the cause of the faux pax, the ‘primitive energy’ incident that threatened to end Korean Air’s foray into Kenya before it even began provided a teachable moment to other airlines on the importance of having a robust presence in social networking sites so as to be more nimble on the damage control front.

The nasty grab of parody, ridicule and (to be honest) racially toned insults that the airline got in response to the ad might have been a tad bit excessive (what else to expect from @Hellbent25 and @Anarchy2012 ? ) but, on the plus side, it also got the airline to realise the mistake early enough so as to correct it. In this way Korean Air not only saved face but also earned quite a bit of admiration from potential customers like myself.

Brand awareness

With the image of the airline industry badly needing an overhaul, social media tools provide the easiest and cheapest way for airlines to connect with fliers on a personal level and also to safeguard their reputation. The ‘viral effect’ is at the heart of the social media experience, and so the unhappiness of one disgruntled flier can multiply faster than a virus in a petri dish. Just ask American Airlines.

The carrier found itself on the wrong side of an internet storm a while back after a YouTube video by a dissatisfied customer pinged around the web. The video titled ‘United breaks guitars’ chronicles Dave Carroll’s futile year-long attempts to get United to compensate him after his custom made guitar was damaged by the airline’s baggage handlers. The video badly damaged the airline’s reputation and to date provides one of the best examples of why which airlines ignore social media tools do it at their own peril.

That’s why it’s all the more surprising that so many of the regions carriers are yet to fully embrace the use of social media tools in interacting with their customers. To date only the flag carriers, Kenya Airways, Air Uganda, Air Tanzania and Air Ethiopia, seem to be investing any attention on the social media front. Kenya Airways stands out from the pack however since it has managed to weave its use of social media tools into its DNA. The airline has a dedicated staff handling its social media feeds and are on standby to respond to customer’s complaints, criticism, enquires (and yes) praise.

Much in the same way as ‘shock troops’ are used in case of an invasion,  social media tools provide an important first defense against negative criticism. As was demonstrated by Korean Air in the ‘primitive energy’ incident,in this bold new age, social media tools give an airline the chance to get the truth out there.

However this is not as easy as it sounds since the internet is one place where rumours, empty speculation and outright lies sometimes have more currency than the truth. Take for instance an ugly rumour that did the rounds a few weeks ago that a Kenya Airways flight to Mombasa had to taxi back to the bay at JKIA after the crew had supposedly forgotten to fuel it. This story later turned out to be a complete falsehood. As KQ clarified on its twitter and facebook pages, the plane in question was only forced to refuel after the crew had sorted out a security issue concerning two unaccompanied bags.

Even as it continues to be a trend setter in the region on the social media front, KQ still has plenty of room for growth and would do well to learn from the innovative ways that other leading carriers are using the new online tools for brand awareness. This is where Virgin America comes in.

The Virgin America experience

Globally speaking Virgin America leads the way in terms of engaging with its customers on social networking sites. Since setting up a dedicated team to deal with its social accounts in 2009, the airline has launched many successful campaigns that mirror its quirky sensibility.

As Abby Lundardini, who is Virgin America’s director of communications, notes adopting the news tools in innovative ways has a steep learning curve but the only way to learn is to take a leap of faith;

“We’re willing to experiment, and we’re kind of a little bit in the startup space having just launched four years ago,” says Lunardini.

“We’ve seen a ton of promise on the guest care and consumer communications side, but also on the revenue side, and when we think something sounds interesting and might work with the business model, we’re definitely willing to think differently and take a risk.”

Lunardini also spoke of the importance of forming partnerships with the new platforms. She singled out twitter for special praise;

“We see a lot more engagement on Twitter than on some of the other platforms, because it’s quick, and it’s easy to engage,” she noted. Adding;

“Also, we were one of the launch partners with Twitter for Promoted Tweets, and our following really took off from there. We started working very closely with Twitter and have done a lot with them.”

Virgin has also used the social networking sites to give back. In 2010 the airline started a Fly More and Give Back campaign in which, for a 24 hour window, $5 from every booking would be donated to an educational charity. Last year the proceeds from that such campaign went towards the Stand Up To Cancer foundation for research. Lunardini notes that the give-back campaigns have also seen the airline record its highest sales days which is proof positive that partnering with social networking sites works;

“Both years, we’ve used Promoted Trends and Promoted Tweets to amplify the message and really get the Twittersphere buzzing,” she said.

“70% of our bookings come from our web channels, so our fliers are really social media savvy and tech savvy, so when something new comes out in the deals space or a geolocation product or something along those lines that’s innovative and interesting, we know that those types of campaigns resonate with our fliers.”

The times they are a changing

Even with all this success from airlines using social networking sites, there is a growing school of thought that suggests that by focusing so much on online complaints airlines are neglecting those who still phone in, write letters or even e-mail their complaints. It’s worthwhile to have this discussion but, going forward, I for one feel that airlines should balance out how they deal with their customers complaints either from the new online platforms or from the traditional formats.

That’s said, it has be said that there is a Darwinian element to all of this. Airlines have to evolve in how they address their customers concerns or they will perish. The concern that there might be an over-emphasis on the use of social media tools is perfectly reasonable but is it is not that difficult to see why airlines are giving it short thrift. Social media is getting more attention because, with its memes, trending topics and viral nature, it simply makes more noise. As they say the hinge that squeaks the most always gets the grease.

 

2 Comments

  1. Mvoi says:

    Very interesting article. Amazing quality… Keep it up!

  2. Paul says:

    The airlines you mention as having embraced social media have made what i can term as plastic attempts on the effort..whats known as slapping lipstick on a bulldog. Their social media pages are more about new product offerings than actively engaging the customer. MArketing tool yes, customer insight the score is ZERO

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