The Drum’s tech law correspondent, Mark Leiser, found himself at the centre of a PR nightmare for easyJet after claiming he was refused on his flight after he sent a tweet criticising the airline and highlighting the plight of a Royal Navy sailor struggling to reach his destination in time to ship out. His claim was retweeted more than three and a half thousand times and the story was picked up by global media. Here, Leiser describes being plunged into the centre of a Twitter storm.
As a PhD student specialising in cyber law who happens to lecture Internet law at the University of Strathclyde, it was pretty ironic to find myself in the middle of the much talked-about “Twitter storm”.
It was a strange rollercoaster compounded by the fact that I was cut off from it all during the eye of the storm. Between my smartphone battery and transport-hopping over a manic 24-hour period, I seemed to be the only one struggling to keep up with the sudden attention on my Twitter feed.
When I sent the original tweet on that Tuesday September night, it didn’t grab a great deal of attention. It was prompted by the kind of fed up frustration that anyone who’s been on the receiving end of poor customer service will know about.
As consumers, one of the only tools we have to bargain with is our power to tell everyone we know that a brand or company has been rotten to us. At the very least, that was my intention when I tweeted; at the very most, it would have been amazing to get some help for the soldier who was obviously having a worse time than I was because of flight delays. He was on his way to protect and serve the country, I was only going to a meeting.
I remember noticing a few retweets at the time I sent it but nothing major. When I eventually got to London and to my friend’s flat where I was staying for the night, it was after midnight and all was quiet on the Western front.
I carried on as normal the next morning and it wasn’t until I took a phonecall while on an early London bus as I was being squashed by commuters that I finally realised my experience was picking up some traction.
I had a quick chat with the woman on the other end of the line. I knew she was a freelance journalist but I had no idea that the paper picking up her story would be the Independent.
When I got off the phone and had a quick look at Twitter I noticed a few high profile tweeters and bloggers talking about it, including Graham Linehan (@glinner), writer of the IT crowd TV show, who has more than 300,000 followers. At that point I realised how rapidly this was moving and that it was going viral.
From then on mayhem ensued. The Independent and, naturally, The Drum were quick off the mark with the story and the rest of the media followed suit. It was carried by all the major titles and even made the front page of the Paris Metro the next day.
The retweets of my gripe rocketed into the thousands and my smartphone couldn’t keep up with the rapid interactions on Twitter.
I was only in London for a couple of meetings before I had to make an awkward easyJet flight back to Glasgow and my phone was either off, out of signal or out of battery for most of the day. When I did manage to check into my emails quickly my inbox was packed with requests from journalists. It was becoming incredible.
But the hysteria began to get to me. As the reports flowed I began to worry about how I was being portrayed; for example, I noticed a couple of stories had elevated my job title and I worried that my colleagues might think I’d given myself a sudden promotion amid the prospect of media fame.
Being so cut off from the web as all of this happened left me with a kind of cyber paranoia – I had no idea how people were reacting, I had no way of knowing what easyJet were telling the media; it started to become intimidating.
As it turned out, of all the reactions I managed to gather in the end I can only remember one that was negative. People on the whole were very supportive and simply just related to that little sense of injustice I’d felt on a frustrating night of flight delays and bad service.
Twitter storms are quick and immediate; the full force of it was contained within 24 hours and although I do still get comments now and again – either in the virtual or real worlds – things quickly went back to normal.
How much of an effect my tweet had on easyJet is hard to measure, but one friend did get in touch to tell me he’d had a look at the easyJet share price over the course of the three days around my tweet and the numbers showed a noticeable drop. It could be a huge coincidence or it could be an indicator of the power, albeit short term, just one tweet can generate.
But the best bit for me was finding out that the news of this one tweeter trying to drum up some help for a soldier on his way to do his duty actually did filter through to him. It turned out he was a sailor and I had wrongly used the phrase 'soldier' when I had been told he was a member of the military. My apologies to anyone in or affiliated with the Royal Navy. I was contacted by his daughter on Twitter after she put the pieces of the jigsaw together. We’ve agreed we’ll meet up for a coffee when he’s back in the country and I’m looking forward to that.
The biggest lesson from all of this for easyJet or any other brand should be that social media now play such a vital part in customer service. If they don’t yet have policies or they’re lacking on staff training they could easily be caught short. I could never have envisaged the effect my tweet would have and I’m sure easyJet were just as surprised.
Once those tweets are out there they take on a life of their own and become driven by the masses of people around the globe who have an opinion. The world of PR must be better prepared for that.
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