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US Airways' Twitter gaffe was bad, but its radio silence since only makes the problem worse

Jane Wilson is a communication and reputation consultant. She is a former chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations

Almost everyone I know has experienced that heart-sinking feeling when you send the wrong message to the wrong person or group of people.

Radio silence: US Airways hasn't tweeted since its blunder

I’ve mistakenly hit reply all more times than I care to remember. It’s generally embarrassing, sometimes compromising, but rarely is it professional suicide or hugely damaging to your employer’s reputation. Most recipients are kind enough to point out your mistake. If they really don’t like you they might engage in a bit of schadenfreude with your peers at your expense.

Sadly, the rules are different on Twitter where glee at a corporate fail is part of the fuel that drives its engine. Throw in a bit of porn and you’re in gold country.

And this is precisely where US Airways found itself this week when an employee attached a lewd image of a woman indulging in a novel use of a model plane to one of its tweets. (You can find a pixelated version of the image online but I would strongly advise against opening it at work.)

US Airways issued a formal apology to its almost 425,000 Twitter followers but almost a day later hasn’t tweeted anything since. No one knows for sure what actually caused this. The most common story is that the picture had originally been attached to a tweet received by US Airways and in the process of marking it as inappropriate, the employee accidently attached it to another tweet.

While I can’t quite work out HOW that could happen, I’m willing to believe that it was somehow a mistake. And if it was, I feel sick every time I think of the consequences for that poor employee.

In the travel and transport field, Twitter has become an increasingly popular part of customer service not only in terms of keeping customers informed about service changes, news or delays but also for passengers seeking problem resolution in real time. Just last week, United Airlines helped passenger Marybeth Cadotte onto another flight in response to her Twitter complaint while sitting on a grounded plane. As her 200 fellow passengers were waiting in queues at customer services or on hold listening to call centre music, Miss Cadotte was in the bar at Pittsburgh airport already rebooked onto another flight.

So, what about US Airways? A glance at their account shows that they usually have the standard mix of complaints, customer service queries and comments. I imagine that for serious aviation incidents they have an emergency response plan which will include a social media element, but in this instance it looks like it hasn’t occurred to them that something like this might happen… that someone might just make a small but significant mistake.

Almost a day later, the radio silence makes it look like they have panicked and either don’t know what to do or don’t have the authority to do anything. The consequence is that every single passenger who has tried to use Twitter to engage with the airline in the last day has been shouting into an empty room. US Airways has let one employee mistake impact their customer service support on Twitter when they should in my view have made the apology, and got back to the business of helping customers.

There appear to be two bigger mistakes in this episode than someone accidentally attaching a dodgy picture to a tweet. The first is that no one at US Airways appeared to have noticed the tweet for 20 minutes at which time it was deleted. That’s quite a long time in social media and would suggest that no one is constantly on top of the airline’s own feed. However, the biggest error is that a more senior (and better paid?) employee isn’t taking a proportionate and informed decision to ensure they get back to the business of informing and helping customers.

There will be the usual corporate investigation into how this came to happen, and how they should respond to such an event in future. But to me the key thing for any company is to ensure that whoever is responsible for social media accounts is senior enough and skilled enough in communication to make a quick call on the best course of action without having to negotiate the corporate hierarchies of legal and corporate affairs where real-time just doesn’t exist.