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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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