Timing is (almost) everything in life. Just ask Qantas, the Australian airline that found itself involved in a social media fiasco. The company asked its Twitter followers, “What is your dream luxury inflight experience?” and suggested that they include the hashtag #QantasLuxury in their reply.
This was supposed to be a fun interaction with customers and there was even a prize for the best ideas – a first class gift pack, which included the famous Qantas pajamas. How could it go wrong, especially when there are such nice pajamas at stake? Timing.
And what a poor timing it was. The campaign was launched on November 22nd, just a day after Qantas broke off negotiations with the unions over contracts for its staff, and following a long battle with unions that included grounding the airline’s entire fleet and locking out its staff for 48 hours in response to unions’ industrial action. The idea behind the campaign was to engage positively with customers on Twitter, but instead of just a few tweets with some dreamy ideas, Qantas got about 16,000 tweets and 17 million impressions, which were anywhere between sarcastic and critical, making Qantas really sorry for the moment it thought #QantasLuxury was a good idea.
It didn’t take much time for Qantas to understand that something went wrong. The first person to respond, tweeted that he wanted “planes that arrive intact and on time because they’re staffed and maintained by properly paid, Australia-based personnel.” Another one wrote, “getting a pilot, a plane, engineers and baggage handlers.” Others followed suit with witty and quite funny suggestions. The tweets show a lot of creativity, just not the kind Qantas was hoping for. The final nail in the campaign’s coffin was the inevitable parody of Downfall, this time with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce as Hitler having a meltdown. The link to this YouTube video was retweeted many times and as a result the video got an impressive 50,000+ views in about a week.
Qantas may have wanted to spark positive engagement, but what it got was the exact opposite. Its labor issues were not forgotten and instead were highlighted in a very negative light, generating hostility towards Qantas and its attitude. At the end of the day, Qantas was seen as a company that is totally disconnected from the ordinary people, whether they’re employees or customers.
In the aftermath of this fiasco, many social media experts claimed that it wasn’t just poor timing – Qantas, they claimed, doesn’t really understand social media and its role in stakeholder engagement– they made the mistake of looking at social media only through the narrow lens of marketing. This certainly may be the case here, and there’s a good chance this Twitter gaffe was also a result of misunderstanding the basics of social media communication. It made me wonder how many companies actually do use Twitter for serious and effective engagement with stakeholders. My estimate is that there are almost none (Paul Smith spotlighted an interesting example of one of the few exceptions).
Effective stakeholder engagement requires open and transparent communication between a corporation and its stakeholders. But how open and transparent, not to mention coherent and meaningful, you can be when you’re limited to 140 characters? When you look at the Twitter accounts of most companies, you’ll see that these accounts have become a hybrid tool, integrating PR, marketing, customer service and to some degree CSR. Now, it’s not that stakeholder engagement can’t be mixed effectively with marketing – Jen Boynton gave a great example of such a case a couple of months ago, but in most cases it’s mainly about marketing or PR and barely about engagement.
The reason might be that the stakeholders who visit this 24/7 virtual coffee lounge, as Jonathan Mariano called it, are mainly customers, which makes the whole Twitter environment more marketing oriented. Some companies understand the limit of such a medium and create better platforms to generate effective engagement, from Dell’s IdeaStorm to Timberland’s Voices of Challenge.
The bottom line is that just like in life, when you want to have an effective conversation, you need to look for the right place to have it, and Twitter, no matter how cool or far reaching it is, may not be the place. So even if Qantas would like to forget the moment it created #QantasLuxury, we still might want to take advantage of this fiasco and start wondering if it’s not about time to limit our engagement expectations of Twitter. Companies might need to find better platforms where they can talk with stakeholders peacefully and freely, even beyond 140 characters.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.