The crash of an Asiana aircraft in San Francisco in July provides a number of lessons in social media crisis management for airline marketing departments according to social media consultant Shashank Nigam of SimpliFlying
While Asiana's first thoughts would have been for the safety of its passengers and with the families of the victims, a great deal can be learnt by airlines from the manner in which the South Korean carrier handled communications after the crash at San Francisco airport.
The first photo of the crash was on Twitter within 20 seconds. It was posted by traveller Krista Seiden, who was at a boarding gate at the time of impact. Within minutes she was swamped with requests from journalists all over the world, seeking permission to interview her and to use the photo.
Media agencies across the planet made a beeline for her and in the next eight hours she was quoted in more than 4,500 press articles globally. And all this before Asiana's first press release came out about the incident.
Meanwhile, lucky passengers who escaped from the burning plane wreckage were themselves turning into live reporters. Photos and messages were being posted on Facebook, Twitter, Path, Weibo in China and more - mostly to keep friends and family updated. Even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, wrote a post about her not being on the flight at the last minute, which went viral.
Through all this, the Asiana Airlines PR team seemed like a deer caught in headlights. The first statement came after six hours of non-stop media coverage, stating: "Thank you for your concern...We are currently investigating and will update with news as soon as possible." Not at all enlightening. There was no press release until eight hours after the crash, just silence from the airline. Ironically, the last few tweets from Asiana had been promoting its service to San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Seiden and passengers who posted photos and tweets of the crash online were being chased down and interviewed by the world's media. San Francisco airport and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were sharing status updates on Facebook and Twitter, with the latest photos from the ground and information for passengers. The NTSB was also the first to become the official source of close-up photos of the tragedy from the tarmac, all released through Twitter.
Other airlines, such as Cathay Pacific and Virgin America, were constantly advising passengers of their new flight schedules. Strangers stuck at the airport because of runway closure were finding solace in one another's online messages.
In-flight connectivity provider OnAir says that on every Airbus A380 there are around 480 smartphones, 210 tablets and 210 laptops. All of these devices are the means for posting instant reactions that get shared online. The situation is accentuated in a crisis, when everyone wants to keep their friends and family updated.
In these situations they turn their attention to the airline's social media presence to seek answers. In Asiana's case the level of Facebook fan engagement increased by 50%, while Twitter followers grew by 4,000 in a day. However, it has banned people from posting on its Facebook wall, while on Twitter it replies to a handful of very positive tweets, but does not answer any client questions.
All this backfires when there is a crisis situation. A professional crisis communications team must speak to customers where they reside, in this case online, and address their concerns using the same medium of communication.
The lesson to be learnt by airline PR divisions from the Asiana crash is that social media needs to be an integral part of any crisis management plan for an airline or an airport today. There is no longer the luxury of responding in two hours, or even 20 minutes later.
In Asiana's case, most of the passengers on the plane were Chinese and Korean speakers and it was only a matter of time before the news was posted on mainstream social channels in those countries such as Weibo and WeChat.
Journalists often look at social media when a story breaks, rather than wait for an airline press release.
In the age of the connected traveller, it is not enough to simply be active on social media, to check a box and run contests. Airlines that cannot provide customer service and cater to their customers during a crisis situation would do better by not having a social media presence at all.
When the world's eyes are on you, you have to make absolutely certain you can give your best performance.
Shashank Nigam is CEO at SimpliFlying, a brand strategy firm helping airlines and airports engage with travellers through social media. Find out more about its strategy consulting and training services, on Twitter: @SimpliFlying, or email.