The capacity to operate a 747 is incompatible with social media smarts.
That's the conclusion one might draw from the social media fail of the week — a prize that should exist if it doesn't yet. Qantas Airways landed in the headlines for a tone-deaf Twitter contest that asked people to tweet their dreams for luxury air travel, including the hashtag #qantasluxury. The promotion was arguably in poor taste given the global economic downturn, but was also inargueably and acutely insensitive given the airline's current labor relations standoff with the unions representing its pilots, engineers, baggage handlers and caterers.
"#QantasLuxury is having a CEO who thinks a 71% pay rise is fair and workers are greedy for asking for 3%", read one not-atypical tweet.
Qantas joins two other airlines, United and Southwest, in the esteemed ranks of the most-covered social media failures. Southwest got its trial by fire after turfing filmmaker Kevin Smith from a flight on the grounds that he was oversized. Smith struck back via Twitter, resulting in widespread outrage, and ultimately, Southwest's apology via multiple online channels. United can put a tune to social media humiliation thanks to United Breaks Guitars, the viral YouTube music video that excoriated the company for its careless baggage handling.
And Qantas makes three. Why airlines? You can thank the volatile combination of limited legroom and unlimited connectivity. Aggravate a worn, cramped traveler — or anyone who has recently endured a flight in coach — and then hand them a smartphone: cranky tweets, videos and blog posts will follow.
We've all experienced the utter powerlessness of shutting ourselves into a tin can and trusting our 10th grade physics' teacher's explanation of how, exactly, airplanes are able to fly. Social media now returns just a little of that power.
But airlines are far from the only businesses to face a newly redrawn balance-of-power between company and customer, or between employer and employee. And it's these larger shifts that should make every industry take note of the Qantas gaffe.
Unhappy customers, unhappy contractors, unhappy employees: none of them needs to suffer in silence. Conversely, the delighted first-person reports of great service or work experience carry an authenticity that often outshines a company's own official marketing.
Many companies assess the impact of social media through that narrow lens: marketing. You use Facebook to project your desired brand, Twitter to target your desired customers, LinkedIn to target your next recruitment campaign. Hand your marketing team the keys to these social network vehicles, give them a few bucks to spruce up your website with some nice share links, and your job is done.
But if all you've got is a social media marketing strategy, then you don't have a social media strategy at all. We've been saying this for a while now but it's worth repeating: Social media turns branding into a true (if often accidental) collaboration between company and customer, in the way it enables constant and often bottom-up collaboration within organizations, and in the way it accelerates the pace of conversation and organizational change. Social media tends to flatten hierarchies, disempower gatekeepers, and give a voice to anyone who cares to speak about an issue, or a brand.
No wonder companies go wrong when they treat a game-changing redistribution of power as if it were merely a new way to push an ad slogan. In the case of Qantas, the collision came when a marketing gimmick collided with far-reaching challenges to the company's internal operations; when the Twitter channel was mistakenly perceived as purely external instead of (inevitably) internal as well.
That collision could just as easily have set customer relations against legal, or communications against finance, or p.r. against strategic planning. I've helped clients navigate each one of these fault lines, and in every case, the chasm (and crises) emerge from the combination of a social media team's desire to "own" this new channel (whether due to plain old-fashioned turf-guarding, or the perceived online incompetence of their colleagues) and the rest of the company's hesitation about doing something that is seen as marketing.
The only way to prevent your company from pulling a Qantas is to cross that entirely spurious and downright dangerous divide. Stop treating social media as marketing, and recognize it for what it is: an invitation to transform the entire way your company works, and possibly even the business you're in. It's an invitation you decline at your peril.