Friday, November 25, 2011

This week's social media score - Public: 3 Organisations: 0

This has been an insightful week for organisations using, or considering using, social media with three successive events demonstrating how far power has shifted to the public and illustrating how Australians companies are struggling to engage effectively online.

First up was Qantas with its poorly timed "Qantas luxury" promotion. Qantas launched the Twitter competition by inviting the public to tweet their idea of travel luxury using the hashtag #qantasluxury.

However Qantas appears to not have recognized that the tens of thousands of negative comments levied against the organisation since their shutdown represented a deep seated frustration and disillusionment with the company. Even though Qantas had hired four additional staff focused on monitoring social media the week before.

Within minutes of Qantas's tweet announcing the competition the public hijacked the hashtag and turned it against the company, using it to vent their concerns and frustrations at the airline.

This was picked up by traditional media and covered widely, turning a small ($1,500 in prizes) competition into what was called a national PR disaster for Qantas.

Next was Nissan, whose online competition, managed through their Facebook page, went pear-shaped when the winner of the competition turned out to be good friends with one of Nissan's staff running their social media presence.

While the competition was totally above board, with the winner selected objectively by finding the most car graphics on websites, unfortunately the winner's friendship with the Nissan staff member made it appear otherwise.

Nissan themselves were very upfront about it - indicating that while they congratulated the winner they'd have preferred if he hadn't won, but he'd done so fair and square without breaching any competition terms.

In this situation Nissan's approach did a lot to mute the concern, however it demonstrated the issue of friendship networks. If you're a staff member operating social media channels for an organisation it is highly likely you have many friends online. So what do you tell when a new company competition launches? You let your friends know online so they can spread the word and increase the competition's reach. Entirely above board, however risking a backfire if your friends can gain advantage by being first into a competition.

Third, and most significant, has been the social media backlash against the Kyle and Jackie O show following the comments of Kyle Sandilands regarding the deputy editor of after her article about the reaction to Kyle and Jackie's TV special (which rated extremely poorly).

The backlash, much of it under the hashtag #vilekyle, has led to around a dozen companies deciding to withdraw their advertising from 2DayFM and sponsorship from the Kyle and Jackie O show - even the Federal government has now withdrawn all advertising from any show hosted by Kyle Sandilands.

Over 15,000 people have signed an online petition calling for advertisers to drop support for Sandilands and a number of people (myself included) have called for Southern Cross Austereo to let Sandilands go. Whether they will or not remains to be seen, however the loss of significant sponsors and advertisers will place significant pressure on the company to reconsider Sandiland's contract and on air presence.

All three examples above this week demonstrate different risks in social media.

Qantas failed to monitor and accurately assess the public view, selecting the wrong social media approach to attempt to rebuild its brand. Nissan made an easy misstep, selecting a competition mechanism that raised the risk of someone close to a staff member winning a prize, however by handling the situation in a proactive and robust way minimized the damage and emerged largely unscathed despite initial public concerns.

The Sandilands incident (which remains ongoing) demonstrates how public outrage can translate into the need for rapid organisational action, both through advertiser withdrawal and the attempts by Sandilands and Austereo to apologies for his behaviour (albeit fairly weak apologies that have not satisfied many online). In this case even though Sandiland's comments were made on radio, not on social media, the backlash occurred online and neither Kyle nor Jackie O, nor their employer Southern Cross Austereo, were prepared to engage with the public online response, whereas many of the sponsors and advertisers did, helping to minimize damage to their own brands.

None of these events impacted the government or public service - and in fact there's never been a significant social media disaster due to online engagement by public servants or agencies in Australia (I don't include media attacks on public servants such as by News Ltd on Greg Jericho) - however they all have lessons for government agencies to learn.

It is important to recognize that being absent or unresponsive online and in social media is no protection against public outrage (as the Sandilands incident shows), and failing to monitor online sentiment is a recipe for PR disaster (as Qantas demonstrated). However if organisations act with good faith, communicate and engage actively (as Nissan and several advertisers from the Sandilands issue did), they can minimize the impact of social media gaffes and build strong online relationships with their customers.

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