Interviewing the Man Behind the Social Media Strategy at American Airlines, Part 2 (Across the Aisle)

Yesterday in the first part of my interview with Jonathan Pierce, Director of Social Communications at American Airlines, we talked more about strategy and composition of the social media team. Today we get into some more specific details about how they use specific social channels, how they handle crises, and yes, why they require people to sign a contract to get American to pin their content on Pinterest.

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Cranky: I know I focus on Twitter because that’s the one I get the most utility in, but you talked about all the channels you participate in. How do you view those channels and what do you use them for?

Jonathan: Well I think with some hindsight, one of my key learnings this past year is looking at Across the Aisle from American Airlinessocial as a portfolio of different channels rather than just lumping everything together as social media, having a strategy duplicated for each. That doesn’t work. So we have a strategy for each channel.

Twitter is primarily customer service and media relations led. Customers come to us before or during their trip with questions about their trip experience.

Facebook is much more about growing the brand and providing an opportunity to talk about what’s happening in the business and share stories. With the Facebook wall, there is the opportunity for customers to come and share their views and it gives us the ability to handle those directly.

LinkedIn I feel right now is more a B2B tool for us. There’s also a large number of employees on that site, so we are increasingly using it for recruitment.

Google+ is fascinating really because we have a very large number of international based folks from Asia and the Middle East active in that channel, more than US domestic. Our content strategy is more about international relevance.

YouTube is a repository of video content, obviously, and I think increasingly we’ll use that for sharing different types of video and we’re hoping YouTube continues to improve the metrics we can have on the type of video content that is being shared by our customers. How we’re using YouTube, I don’t know if you’ve seen our behind the scenes video series. We love that series. It’s doing really well for us. YouTube’s role for us is helping to give a lot more character behind the brand and giving insights to our customers about the decisions that are made.

Pinterest and Instagram they kind of play a similar role. Pinterest really is just about sharing visuals. Where we have interesting visual content it goes up on Pinterest. We’re also experimenting with promotions. Destinations, aircraft imagery go very well.

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Cranky: Let me ask you a more specific question. The customer service function seems to be working well, but I’ve been critical about the response to the seat maintenance issues and a few things that have come up. I haven’t seen much discussion of that through social channels. Can you talk about your strategy when those instances happen?

Jonathan: The important thing to remember during an evolving situation like the seat issue, a crisis that’s impacting the brand, is that it’s evolving very quickly. During that time, when something is evolving so quickly, we have a much broader customer communication strategy. Because social is just one part of the communication channels American has available. There’s email, AA.com, social, sales, corporate, agency relationships, and it’s very important to have a consistent story and for one channel not to be sharing information at a different level, a different time, a different level of detail than another channel. Because the customers in a specific channel, we have an obligation to be sharing it with everyone at the same time. This is evolving with experience and actually going through these incidents. Our strategy now is to have a central customer communications plan. Particularly with the seats issue, is to have an aa.com official website as the central content hub for the incident. That’s where the latest media statement, facts that we’re showing to the customers are posted. Then it’s the responsibility of each different channel to point to aa.com.

Cranky: It sounds like it puts your team in a tougher place, because things to happen quickly but the back and forth is much quicker. There’s a static statement on the website but in a vacuum you wouldn’t want to do that if you didn’t have to worry about the company strategy.

Jonathan: You’re absolutely right. We’re caught in the middle between the media response and the customer response. We have to have a company statement but we also have to connect the dots with customers. Social is really driving a lot of the company responsiveness and we are really driving the ability to connect customer and media organizations to be more responsive.

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Cranky: I have a couple of random questions here and then I’ll let you go. I’m curious about your relationship with the legal department. A few months ago I remember getting a couple page contract requesting that I could sign it so you could pin my content on your Pinterest page. I’ve never seen that from anyone else. I couldn’t sign it either because the way it was structured, it said you could do anything with my content. I’m curious if you can talk about how the relationship is – does it prevent you from doing things you’d like to be doing?

Jonathan: Sincerely we have a very good relationship with our legal department. They’re there to protect us as a team, our employees and our customers. They are facilitators for us. The Pinterest example is a great one. We went to them and said “look, there’s a brand new channel. But what Pinterest requires us to do is take other people’s content and pin it on our channel. They said, “well, what if the owner of that content decides they don’t like American pinning it?”

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Cranky: My last question is another legal-related issue. Some airlines have had concerns about the customer interaction through social media because they’re afraid of DOT classifying it as a customer service channel or they’ll have to take it seriously as a complaint and respond per DOT rules. Is that something that’s been a concern for you?

Jonathan: Yeah it has been a concern. We still require if a customer has a complaint, our requirement is that they still go through the official process to register and file a complaint. Once that complaint is made and there’s a file tracking number, then we can work that file, but what we can’t do is per the DOT just take a tweet and consider that a formal complaint. I think that’s the same for every airline. When somebody has an active file reference, we’ll take that customer into direct message to get that information so we can work the file.

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Cranky: Well that’s all I have for you.

Jonathan: Let us know next time you need any support and the team will be here for you. We’re hoping to extend our hours in the coming weeks and months, so as that happens we’ll be sure to let you know and give you a heads up.

Cranky: Is the ultimate goal to be a 24 hour operation?

Jonathan: It is, yes. We don’t have a specific timeline for that but we’ve hired more folks in the last couple of weeks and they’re being trained right now. We just gotta get them competent and up to speed and comfortable and then the next goal for us is to become a 24/7 operation.

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Cranky: Thanks again, I appreciate you taking the time.

Jonathan: Thank you sir.

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If you missed part 1, you can read it here.


13 Responses to Interviewing the Man Behind the Social Media Strategy at American Airlines, Part 2 (Across the Aisle)

  1. Trent880 says:

    If all this social media wasn’t done, would anyone really notice? Would it affect the bottom line at all?

  2. Isn’t social media in the business world to only make sure they cut people off from complaining about their company? The one person that starts a negative tweet will get quick response so go ‘private’ so the company can do something to shut that one person up, but everyone else having the same problem will be ignored if they didn’t hit the online media channels.

    I don’t see companies getting into social media for the good, only to stop the bad from spreading.

  3. CF says:

    A cynical group here! I see tremendous value in social media when it comes to real time help for stranded travelers. It is a fantastic tool from both sides.

    *For the traveler, it’s great because you don’t wait in a physical queue or have to wait on hold with an agent. You send a quick tweet and you can be taken care of.

    *For the airline, it is great for productivity. Since it’s not phone-based, you can have agents helping multiple travelers at once. You also force travelers to get to the point. No long-winded stories about what’s gone wrong over the phone – people just have to tell you what’s necessary to fix the immediate issue.

  4. Jim says:

    Social media is something that airlines have no choice but to participate in, so they figure they might as well make the most of it. They try to create the impression that they care about customers by becoming “modern” and answering questions on Twitter and such. Why not take this “team” of staff and have them answer the phones so that people who call in don’t have to wait an hour for someone to pick up? If I have an issue I’m going to call or go to the counter and talk to someone, not use some stupid website that happens to be the social media fad this year. Social media was designed to connect with your friends and colleagues, not for customer service, and businesses that try to use it that way are wasting resources that they should be using on improving their legitimate customer service channels.

  5. Is it just me or was the response around the seats issue a complete evasion and non-response? As I recall AA as a whole was horrible on communicating anything going on around the seats, social or non-social..

    • Trent880 says:

      It’s not just you. I have no idea how they handled it via social media, but via the normal channels, AMR has been terrible in terms of any issue lately, whether it’s the seats, or the bankruptcy, or the operational meltdown. They have yet to get in front of any issue, and are constantly fumbling well after the fact; no one seems to be in control in DFW (or PHX=P).

    • CF says:

      Nick – I took the response to the seat question as more of passing the responsibility beyond himself. Though he didn’t say it explicitly, it sounded to me like he would have liked to have done more but the powers that be made him fall in line. (Of course, I’m pulling this all from tone and intuition and not much else.) It certainly would fit with what I would expect at the airline.

  6. Chicago Chris says:

    I see both sides of the coin on this one. Any brand has to be involved in social media. As some have mentioned it’s a key component to defend against wild accusations and make customers think you care about them (whether the company does or doesn’t). It’s also a way to get your brand out there to new customers and show off how current you are.

    The better companies also use it to go on the offense. AA’s Facebook strategy is a great way to engage customers in the brand by sharing stories. It’s the same reason why airlines share nice customer and employee stories in the in-flight magazine…it builds a relationship with the brand.

    Twitter on the other hand is much more instantaneous. People tweeting expect rapid replies. I am personally still waiting on responses/a resolution from Hurricane Irene when my mother had items stolen from checked luggage. As CF points out AA needs to do better with instant crisis management. It showed to me during Irene and continues to show in its handling of the 757 seat problem.

    It sounds to me as AA continues to grow this operation it should look to place a member of legal and a member of corporate communications in the room or readily available for consultation. These little tweets can spiral out of control quickly and get picked up by mainstream media. Having both in the room would help crisis control on social media by having a unified response for customers and traditional media outlets, which Jonathan seemed to indicate was a point of miscommunication during the seat incidents.

  7. Its amazing how companies are now jumping on the social media bandwagon. I suppose anything that gives them the edge. I think they should concentrate on providing good customer service.

  8. Since I don’t have a twitter account, can’t figure out what’s being written by people when I do read it, and have a “dumb” phone, the whole twitter thing (regarding delays, etc.) does me no good at all. But I’m a bit technologically challenged.

  9. Trent880 says:

    I just don’t see the benefit. Granted it’s anecdotal, but I know of no one that tweets, other than the Kardashians, and any airline’s facebook page I see is mostly rants. I’d love to see a demographic study on tweet-ers and facebook-ers that complain via those channels to airlines, by fare class. I’d bet $1 it’s mostly infrequent, price sensitive travelers on the lowest fares that the airlines social media depts are spinning their wheels to please.

    • CF says:

      Trent880 – That is definitely anecdotal. There are a silly number of people who tweet, including me. I alone have over 100,000 followers on Twitter and I’m a nobody. Twitter is huge, and social overall is even bigger.

      Now, it doesn’t matter if people are on cheap tickets. If they get delayed or canceled, AA has to deal with them somehow. Why not use a more efficient channel that helps AA save time and money while helping people? It makes perfect sense.

      But I can also tell you that there are plenty of people on Twitter that are buying expensive tickets. This isn’t a passing fad.

  10. David M says:

    I notice something interesting in a few of the comments. People are saying that AA should ignore the social media fad and concentrate on improving customer service. But isn’t responding to issues that are posted on social media sites part of providing customer service? Why should the telephone or a written letter (be it via the post office, fax, or this newfangled e-mail thing) be the only way to deal with customer service issues?

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