Prepare for Takeoff: Social Media and Airlines

In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 made an unpowered emergency water landing on New York’s Hudson River. As passengers exited the plane, they were taking pictures and tweeting them before traditional media outlets were even aware of what had happened. Social media—microblogging services such as Twitter in particular—have changed the game. News itself is now a user-generated, synchronous, and real-time phenomena.

This indeed proves challenging for public relations and crisis communication departments.
In 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on its final approach to San Francisco. Asiana waited four hours before it sent out this tweet—and waited an additional two hours to release a traditional press release.

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Six hours is an eternity in “social media time”. One particular photo taken by a crash survivor had already been retweeted 32,000 times in this timeframe.

How do you effectively communicate about a significant issue in the age of social media? Let’s use Southwest Airlines as an example. In 2013, the nose gear on Southwest Flight 345 failed, causing the aircraft to skid the length of seven football fields, and injuring ten people. A mere 30 minutes after the incident, Southwest had already begun communicating with the public, issuing a tweet with official hashtag and assuring the public the airline would play an active role in providing information about what had happened.

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Honesty, accountability, and owning the conversation is paramount—just as they are from a traditional crisis communication perspective. The key difference when social media is added to the mix is the rapid pace in which communication unfolds. A mix of truth and rumours can be eliminated—or at the very least, mitigated—by simply owning the conversation as soon as possible.

Featured image: By Brian (originally posted to Flickr as Departure Path) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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