When Social Media Attacks

Anyone else get the feeling that there comes a point when social media can be a bad thing? Oh sure, it has incredible power, but that’s both good and bad. On the good side, it enables mass communication on levels never seen before in real-time. Many have tied social media to the success of the so-called Arab Spring, and that makes it truly impressive. But there’s a bad side. Social media has no fact-checking requirements. If a story sounds good, it can blow up in minutes even if it’s silly or even downright wrong. The airlines have really felt a lot of that lately. What’s worse about this? I honestly don’t know the best way for airlines to react.

Twitter Shark

Take Delta, for example. It has had a one-two punch lately of bad stories that got out of hand quickly. The most recent was the completely silly idea that Delta hates Jews. The article was first published in some fringe website with the title “Delta’s incredible ‘no-Jew’ fly policy.” The suggestion was that since Saudi Arabian would be joining the SkyTeam alliance, of which Delta is a member, and since Jews aren’t allowed in Saudi Arabia (not really true), Delta therefore hates Jews. As my mother would say, oy gevalt.

The formula was simple here. Some group with an agenda to push brings together a few tiny bits of fact and turns it into a story. It makes the story sound juicy enough so outlets start picking it up. Within no time, some site with at least a little credibility picks it up and then it snowballs from there. Within hours, the world thought Delta was going to ban Jews from its flights. (Good thing that’s not true since I’ve got a ticket for September.)

The reality is that none of this is airline policy. Saudi Arabia, along with every other country, sets rules for who can and can’t enter the country. Airlines make it a policy to ensure that every passenger that gets carried to that country has the proper documentation for entry. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a full ban on Jewish people, but it does say that people with an Israeli stamp or visa “could be refused entry.” (It also says the same thing about people who don’t comply “with the Saudi Arabian requirements regarding general appearance.”) Is that a bad policy? Yes. Should Delta take heat for the policies of a country to which it doesn’t even fly? Come on. But that didn’t matter – the story exploded and Delta looked terrible in a matter of minutes.

This one, of course, came on the heels of the military bag fiasco. In that one, soldiers were coming back from Afghanistan and had four bags each. Delta offered three bags for free to active duty military members traveling on orders, but they had to pay for that fourth bag. The soldiers posted it on YouTube, and Delta quickly became unpatriotic and evil. Why? Because the airline only allowed three free bags instead of four? People just couldn’t believe that an airline would charge soldiers to take bags after war. But guess what? The Pentagon actually reimburses soldiers for that. Oops. Not such a big story in reality, but soldiers are a hot button issue and this one took off quickly.

In both cases, Delta had to rush a response, and that’s dangerous. In the military incident, Delta increased its free bag allowance and others followed. With the Saudi Arabian deal, Delta simply clarified its relationship by explaining there would be no codesharing or frequent flier redemption. The former isn’t a surprise, but the latter is very strange since mileage earning and redeeming is a cornerstone of any alliance. But Delta felt it had to react before things got worse.

And that’s the scary thing here. If a story gets big, it can have a real impact on any airline. So those “influential” people with a large Twitter following or a gaggle of Facebook friends can basically hold the airline (or any company) hostage. (I’m not suggesting that the soldiers were acting maliciously here – just using that as an example of a story that can blow up quickly.) This encourages people to try to take up arms and go to the web to get their way. It’s great when someone is actually wronged, but that’s not always the case. By caving and changing the airline’s baggage policy, Delta is opening up to people to try to influence them even when those people are wrong. And people who are more “influential” online carry more weight.

I spoke about this with Morgan Johnston, the man who built JetBlue’s social media presence from simply himself to a cross-functional team with 19 members. He said that JetBlue is certainly cognizant of this as a potential problem. If you give preferential treatment to those who just happen to be “influential” in cyberspace, then it’s doing a disservice to everyone. Sure, the angry passenger might be happy but someone with a legitimate concern might be overlooked because the company is busy focusing on more “influential” people.

JetBlue understands this, but not everyone does. And the more that others give in when the spotlight shines, the more it will empower other people to do the same.

So while social media can do a lot of good, it can do a lot of bad as well. That’s why I was sad to see Delta give in on the military bag policy. Was there really a problem? No. But it’s hard to put all the blame on Delta. How can you not react when the entire country starts suggesting you hate our troops? I don’t know that anyone knows the best way to react in these situations yet, because it’s a relatively new phenomenon. I certainly don’t know the right thing to do here, and that makes it frustrating.

What do you all think?

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