Friday, July 31, 2009

You Tube protest costs airline dearly

In China, sites like You Tube and Twitter have been blocked for weeks. But in Canada, where Internet use is a little less hindered, one angry musician has cost an American airline thousands after he used the a social media website to air his grievances. 

In 2008, Canadian musician David Carroll travelled to Nebraska on a one week tour. But his flight with United Airlines proved a little more eventful than he anticipated. His $3500 Taylor guitar was witnessed being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago and Carroll later discovered that it was severely damaged.

Despite making countless phone calls and sending numerous faxes in his bid to obtain compensation, Carroll failed get even one dime. So, in a calm rage the country singer set about composing his song of protest entitled 'United Break Guitars'. After posting it on the popular video sharing website it drew in more than 3.9 million views. But the video also drew attention from United Airlines, perhaps due to a 10% plunge in its stock price costing shareholders some $180 million. Of course Carroll's song may have only added to the effects the global downturn is having on airlines. But UA were none too happy and responded to the You Tube video, by another social media site, Twitter.

Rather than respond with a more usual press release, UA's first comments came in a tweet. However, United's apology, which first went out to its 18,600 Twitter followers about 24 hours after the video appeared on July 7th, has failed to attract even a fraction of the attention than Carroll's protest. The airline has also not responded on its own corporate YouTube channel.

Social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and You Tube are not only being used by protesters at demonstrations but also aggrieved customers. And companies ignore these protests at their peril. "Thanks to social computing, travellers' tales are no longer confined to what they tell to their coworkers and neighbors," says Henry H. Harteveldt, a vice president and airline and travel industry analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco.

It is estimated that some 60% of travellers in Europe and North America engage in some form of social networking online. "And they are out there in public for the whole world to see," Harteveldt warns.

Airlines in the United States have been the quickest to embrace such technology as a low-cost public relations and marketing tool. Using it to disseminate low-fare sales and other promotions it has a far reaching impact in cyberspace.

Carriers like Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines are among the most active users, each with online "followings" in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people. Some airports, like Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta and Logan International in Boston, are even using dedicated channels on Facebook and YouTube to provide travellers with information like how to use the airport train system or to give updates on construction projects or changes to rental-car facilities.

But just as airlines can inform passengers, so can passengers give their feedback. In December 2008, Oliver Beale, a passenger travelling on Virgin Atlantic from Mumbai to London, was so disappointed by his in-flight meal that he wrote a blistering letter of complaint to the airline's owner, Richard Branson, complete with photos of the food. Copies of the missive, in which Mr. Beale described his "culinary journey from hell," spread rapidly via e-mail and the story was quickly picked up by bloggers and traditional media from Sydney to Southampton. The airline's public-relations team quickly got out the message on Facebook that Mr. Branson had personally phoned Mr. Beale and invited him to help select food and wine for future flights.

The phenomena of social media is more prevalent in the west however. Airline JetBlue, for example, which has more than 960,000 Twitter followers, has 35 staff members dedicated to updating its feed. But in Asia only a handful use such services. Notable exceptions are Malaysia Airlines and the low-cost Air Asia. For Chinese carriers there would be little point at all since Facebook, Twitter and other social website are being constantly interrupted by government censors.

As for Mr Carroll, a UA spokesman Robin Urbanski said they should have responded much sooner and that Dave Carroll's video would be used for corporate training purposes. "United's experience is the latest and best example of how social computing is affecting the business reputations of travel companies," said Mr. Harteveldt of Forrester. "Every mistake as well as every success is going to be Facebooked and Twittered."

Despite the criticism of countries and governments that come through the use social media, the forum is a healthy one. It helps by creating debate and bringing about change that can benefit both sides. Ignoring technology and social media, is a potential risk to both companies and governments. The problems still exist even if they are not acknowledged.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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