Travel Brands Walking a Social Media Tight Rope

As if major airlines don't have enough trouble these days, two well-known brands are in the midst of a very public online reputation management crisis.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic recently experienced first-hand the impact social media can have on their brand perception, when disgruntled employees from each company separately posted complaints on Facebook. What's worse, it appears that some of these employees were posting while at work. Actually, that's not too surprising, considering the widespread use of Facebook as an anti-productivity tool.

For Virgin Atlantic, the corporate response was immediate and severe. Thirteen flight attendants/cabin crew were fired upon the discovery of "totally inappropriate" behavior on the social networking site. The crew members from Virgin Atlantic made somewhat surprising statements about the company's fleet of airplanes, saying that the jet engines were replaced more often than average (indicating more severe mechanical issues), and that planes were "full of cockroaches." They also poked fun at passengers.

It seems like somewhat of a knee-jerk response from a company that typically has set its brand apart on the basis of forward thinking and advanced technologies.

At British Airways, the ripple effect was already in progress internally, as the company was already struggling with a major shift in flights from Gatwick to Heathrow, and had been struggling with very public lost luggage incidents, among other customer service problems.

The British Airways employees created their own Facebook group called "'Things that irritate you more when working on check-in." Among the list of complaints: "smelly travelers" and Americans with "stupid accents." Marketing Shift pointed to the internal management as the main point of contention.

How to Avoid These Social Disasters

Related to the "new rules" and the changing face of PR, internal corporate communications must catch up to the new platform -- and fast. We're still seeing effects of internal PR groups attempting to control the conversations, and put forth very specific messaging. It simply doesn't work in this new social environment.

When you create a system of reviewing and dissecting every word released to the public, you also take away the opportunity to develop true relationship marketing, not only with your customer, but also your employees and stakeholders.

When fostering community and developing your social environment, it's perfectly acceptable to designate a few key "brand evangelists" -- whether internal, external, or a combination of both. You absolutely want these types to communicate their buy-in to the masses, but you first have to relinquish complete control, and accept that there will be missteps.

On top of that, there will be millions of conversations beyond your control. You can only take credit (and blame) for what's within the control of the communications department.

Communicating positive messages from the top down via corporate culture will be a necessary first step to spread the messaging effectively throughout the organization. One telling success story and example of creating this social wave would be Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, and all around master of social media honesty.

Creating this personal connection with all of his followers on Twitter and rambling on the corporate blog have contributed to a mass perception that his multi-million dollar corporation is human. And that's not to say that the corporate culture there isn't remarkably personable -- it may well be. But the fact remains: a well-oiled warehouse business and customer service machine is able to project a personality publicly.

For travel companies who value customer service as a major point of their brand proposition, it's critical to filter key messages down to the "average Joe" and build a real brand identity around their customers. Even if you're selling a commodity in the travel vertical, as opposed to a high level of service to the end consumer, you must instill a higher level of pride in your internal stakeholders.

Should the employees have gone as far as they did? Probably not. But the majority of us can probably understand being a frustrated or unappreciated employee.

Corporations like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic had a responsibility to educate all levels of employees on how the companies were (positively) joining in social media circles, dealing with internal issues privately, ensuring employee satisfaction, which in turn would improve the customer experience.

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About the author

Elisabeth Osmeloski has been in the search engine marketing industry since 1999, with agency experience as an SEO consultant and web copywriter for a variety of clients, ranging from small businesses to large corporations, as well as working in-house for a travel search industry startup. Elisabeth is also a regular speaker and a moderator at the Search Engine Strategies conferences.

Elisabeth recently launched a new blog and consulting agency, Adventures in Search, specializing in editorial services including content strategy, SEO copywriting, community development and management, social media marketing, online PR and customized link building. Elisabeth's areas of expertise include adventure travel services, destination and tourism marketing, outdoor recreation and action sports, as well as luxury- and lifestyle-focused brands.

She holds a B.A. in Marketing from the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She also spent several years as the Skiing Editor for About.com, and still enjoys writing as an active travel journalist whenever possible. In addition to freelance travel writing assignments, Elisabeth has also created Downhill Divas, a social network for women interested in skiing, snowboarding, freeride mountain biking and living a healthy, active lifestyle.