Julius Duncan's Blog

Brands for a social age

Archive for the month “March, 2010”

How social media can save British Airways’ reputation

The acrimonious labour relations dispute between British Airways (BA) and its cabin crew staff is reaching boiling point. Initial strike action is scheduled for March 20-22, and as the dispute becomes a political football in the run up to the UK’s General Election the likelihood of a negotiated settlement recedes. BA’s Chief Executive, Willie Walsh, has been vocal about the ‘extensive contingency plans’ in place to try to keep services up and running during the strike, but is BA prepared for the reputational storm ahead in social media?

A quick look at the discussion boards shows that volume and sentiment is already running high. To BA’s credit it has already put some basics in place. Brand outposts are established at YouTube where BA has its own channel, on Twitter, and  its official Facebook fan page. The company has also taken a first step into content generation with a video from CEO Walsh prominent on the BA.com home page, and YouTube.

So a decent start, but things are about to get much tougher. During the unpredictable days of the strike when customers may be let down at short notice, the story will shift to how BA is handling the disruption. Any perception that BA isn’t doing everything it can to assists customers would result in heavy online criticism, and strengthen the hand of the strikers. However, with the right strategy the social media battleground is an area where BA can potentially score a big win.

So, what should the comms team be doing in the days and weeks ahead to find the ‘opportunity’ in this crisis .

1. Ramp up active listening, and train social CRM teams

BA is clearly listening to conversations on Twitter, offering advice and answers to customer enquiries through @British_Airways. BA should ramp up this activity by  using a real-time social media dashboard to monitor the entire web, identify issues, and respond to them. In order to be able to impress in this area BA should use the coming days to train up additional staff to deliver this ‘social CRM’, and signpost customers to the appropriate resources. Listening to the flow of comment on-line will also give BA access to valuable real-time intelligence around how the social media conversation is developing, and how this will affect the mainstream media’s handling of the story.       

2. Work out a compelling content strategy

BA is in the lucky position of having time to prepare for the strike days. This is a great opportunity to ramp up the content creation beyond the relatively corporate-feel video that has been published to date. How about getting some other BA staff talking about their mission to keep services running on strike days? Create some testimonials from loyal customers? Or, a technical explanation of just how flights will be kept moving during the strike? If Walsh was up for it, a camera crew following him to each of the affected UK airports on the strike days as he empathises with customers, would make for compelling content with high shareability. By creating a stream of content that moves the story forward hour by hour BA would increase its ability to keep control of the news agenda. 

3. Mobilise supporters

If it hasn’t done so already BA should landscape those influential travel, business, aviation, etc bloggers who are sympathetic to its side of the argument. These individuals can be used to seed the BA created content into the social sphere, increasing the opportunity for it to achieve widespread coverage. Handled correctly these supporters can also play a crucial role in defending  BA’s reputation from the powerful position of third-party advocates.   

4. Create a hub away from BA.com

BA’s strategy to date is to signpost customers to a specific strike information page on their site. When the dispute gets into full swing a more dynamic approach would be to set up a Tweetmeme hub similar to the Toyota Conversations page set up by Toyota to aggregate comment and content around its recent car recall. This is a bold strategy as it streams all comment, negative or positive. However, it demonstrates a transparent and open approach, gives a further platform to stream BA’s own content, and shows a company willing to listen to all stakeholders.

5. Move fast

As mentioned on these pages before, speed is of the essence when it comes to reputation management online. To act fast you need to be well prepared, and then execute your plans seamlessly. BA’s responses to any major developments or a groundswell of discontent online, need to be up in a matter of hours, and then constantly monitored. The BA team will all have to know their role, and ideally have trained for this scenario.   

In summary, if BA can successfully put the customer at the heart of every communication, and use social media to demonstrate it is ‘walking the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’, it can emerge from this crisis with its reputation enhanced.

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A reputation attack a day – the new normal?

What makes a good news story? At its heart is the classic ‘who, what, why, when and how?’ from your journalism school 101. Add in the premise that ‘bad news sells’, and you’re on the same page as the editors at mainstream media outlets across the globe. Since the advent of the real-time web mainstream media journalists are being presented with these core facts on an hourly basis, combined with ‘instant case studies’ of the people involved. By tapping into these sources (and at the same time saving the extensive legwork and fact checking of the past) journalists have a ready stream of compelling copy. As a result the grievances of dissatisfied customers are increasingly finding their way into the public domain, requiring  companies to be in a constant state of readiness to manage these conversations.

In an excellent article in the Washington Post on the subject Bernhard Warner points out that ‘a genuinely timely and transparent response’ is now required, rather than the ‘spin’ of the past. Good advice for online crisis comms, but we believe it goes much further than that. Management teams brought up on a diet of  business thinking that glorifies the organisation are now being forced to re-think their entire approach due to the power of the social web. Some inspirational thinking in this area comes from social media commentator Umair Haque . He believes that companies need to go from ‘Great to Good’ , and rediscover their principles, to thrive/survive in the social age.

It’s going to be a long road for the majority of companies to adopt the authenticity, transparency and humbleness required to deal with these new ways of working, and new rules of engagement. For those willing to take that road the investment will pay off as dealing with online reputational threats becomes a day-to-day normality for every company.

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10 tips for reputation management in the social age

1. Update your current crisis plan    
Social media usage is increasing rapidly. The number of people using social media as a platform to complain about products or services is on the increase. Many companies have a crisis plan in place that covers mainstream media, but that’s no longer enough. A critical first step is to review any crisis plans or manuals that you have, and drag them into the social age.       
2.  Scenario training
Similarly it’s little use having excellent media training for your executives if the battle for hearts and minds is actually being won and lost on Twitter. When the brown stuff hits the whirring thing will your team be ready? Will roles be clearly set out? Are you prepared for the speed with which issues roll through social media? Investing in some scenario training that develops relevant social reputation management skills, will pay off.
3.  Establish your social outposts
Brands like Paperchase and Eurostar have been caught out when an issue has hit, because they’ve not taken prior ownership of key social media outposts, like Twitter. To effectively manage a reputational issue that is created, or amplified, in social media it’s necessary to have the same tools as your detractors. Get your outposts established now. They are key ‘engagement hubs’ when you are caught up in a reputational storm (see 7 below).         
4. Engage audiences in the good times
Consumers don’t simply want presence from brands in social media, they want engagement. Great news!  Through some smart content creation, and an appropriate conversation strategy, you can populate your outposts with engaged friends and followers. These guys are going to be your best asset if your reputation is ever under attack (see 9 below).  
5. Take-up active listening
What’s the best kind of crisis? One you prevent happening. Some of the messiest reputational car crashes in the social age e.g. Dell , Maclaran could have been minimised by effective listening combined with an effective response strategy. The starting point for all social reputation management is active listening.         
6. Provide rapid response
Speed has always been of the essence in issues and crisis comms. In the social age the pace is merciless. This is where the preparation, training and scenario role plays kick-in. A well drilled team, with the appropriate brand outposts to work with, can get your communications onto the front foot with a rapid response to any attack. 
7. Generate ‘stream’ of content
If you‘ve not succeeded in containing the issue (No 5), then you’re in full crisis mode. At this point both social and mainstream media are a voracious beast, hungry for information, the truth, the next development. If you can feed the beast fast enough, you have a chance to lead the agenda. If you don’t, you will leave an information vacuum that others will rush to fill with speculation, opinion and rumour, and the narrative is out of your control.         
8. Listen, learn, adapt
In the heart of the crisis your listening must be even more acute. What are the latest developments/issues out there? How are your messages being received, disseminated, mashed up? What insights can be uncovered to inform strategy, tone and content? You can’t respond to every comment so be selective. If you’ve already invested time in establishing your sector’s influencers, this is when it can pay off.     
9. Acknowledge and mobilise supporters
Remember those ‘good times’ back in No 4? They’ll seem a long way off at the moment! Don’t forget the power of a third party endorsement. Listen out for advocates and acknowledge and encourage their support. Don’t forget the power of your staff champions, and use effective internal comms to get everyone on the same page.       
10. Discover the ‘opportunity’
Every crisis can become an opportunity. Using the insights from your listening activity, create a proactive comms strategy that demonstrate your true colours as a company e.g. M&S, Domino’s Pizza. Remember, bad things happen to good companies, it’s how you respond that’s remembered.

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