Qantas A380 incident: a lesson in social media and web PR

Today’s emergency landing of a Qantas Airbus A380 at Changi Airport in Singapore was another example of how travel companies need to establish a solid social and web PR strategy.

qantas twitter5

Firstly, let’s get what actually happened out of the way, by way of official confirmation from Qantas after the event.

Flight QF32 from Singapore to Sydney, Australia, left Changi Airport at 10am (Singapore time).

The aircraft experienced a problem with one of its engines shortly after take-off and returned immediately to Singapore, to be met on the runway by fire crews following reports of smoke coming from the engine.

Footage from the BBC (above) illustrates the damage to the affected engine. Qantas has grounded its fleet of six A380s ahead of a full investigation.

But the modern demands of the 24-7 news cycle and the more recent addition of social media meant that the picture in the immediate aftermath was confusing to say the least, and terrifying for friends and relatives of passengers at worst.

See this short article on Reuters:

qantas twitter3

At the same time as these clearly inaccurate reports were emerging, passengers were tweeting pictures from the aircraft of the damage.

qantas twitter6

The situation was so chaotic in the initial hours after the incident that Qantas officials were supposedly telling Australia media that no wreckage was found on the small Indonesian island of Batam as a dramatic and pretty incriminating photo was spreading around the web.

qantas twitter7

Eventually the airline and officials on the ground got their ducks in a row and released a statement on the airline’s website.

But in a world often led by news reports emanating or spreading through social media, perhaps Qantas did not react as quickly as it could.

To its credit, Qantas placed a message on the airline’s Facebook page and has responded a number of times to some of the comments left on the post.

qantas twitter4

But the rather unwieldy and viral world of Twitter is more immediate (some might call it live) and is where crisis, or incident, management needs to take place.

Qantas has two Twitter accounts: one for its US division and another known as Qantas Travel Insider, offering tips for travellers.

The former has not updated its account with any information about the incident, meaning one of the most recent messages sits rather awkwardly under the current circumstances.

qantas twitter1

The latter gave an update of sorts when asked about the incident, but was arguably not particularly helpful either.

qantas twitter2

Thankfully the entire incident ended safely, which is clearly the most important thing.

But how it was dealt with in the immediate aftermath – when social media has a tendency to spiral out of control, unless a coordinated approach is carried out – will be an abject lesson from which other airlines and travel companies can easily learn.

UPDATE: Another Qantas aircraft, a Boeing 747-400, was forced to return to Singapore’s Changi Airport on Friday 5 November after problems with one of its engines.

NB: Hat-tip @travelfish for picture sourcing.

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Kevin May

About the Writer :: Kevin May

Kevin May was a co-founder and member of the editorial team from September 2009 to June 2017.



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  4. Jessica

    the power of social media…

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  8. mad dog

    Utter tripe all!

  9. John BC

    Social media is pretty well aloways going to lead the news or rumour mill where members of the public are involved in a news worthy event. Everyone likes a scoop not just journalists. However a well known journalist once described 24 hr coverage of the Gulf War as being like “untreated sewage”. Rather unkind I thought, but at the same time without being properly processed and filtered a distorted picture can result. With the A380 story The smiling couple holding up a piece of obvious Quantas wreckage must have scared the hell out of relatives of people on the plane and demonstrated the danger of “news” that has not been fully assessed and confirmed.

    Social media is great and its democratic but its not always a source of considered and thus credible news until the whole picture is revealed. So Kev!! old fashioned (but tech uptodate) journo’s do have a huge responsibility in checking out the facts when the social media mill starts to grind out stories – which I happen to know you do!!!!

    • Simon Gunson

      “Social media is great and its democratic but its not always a source of considered and thus credible news”

      As opposedto what?

      Investigative teams composed of Governments involved (who may wish to downplay maintenance problems with their national flag carrier and protect tourism) aircraft and engine manufacturers (all keen to minimise their own liability in the final report) and the airline which wants to distance itself from culpability?

      These are credible sources?

      As opposed to a democratic process of concerned individuals anxious for the safety of air travel trying to interpret observable facts?

      The only reason that official reports rank more credibility results from access to in depth investigations, but investigators can and do draw wrong conclusions, so I welcome public input as a way to keep the whole process honest.

      Look at how many recent accidents have not been adequately explained. The Turkish 737 crash at Schipol where engines closed down on approach.

      The British Airways B777 whose engines shut down on approach without adequate explanation.

      Who benefits from not answering the true cause of crashes?
      Airlines and aircraft manufacturers with sub standard products or maintenance.

      Take your socially obedient criticism of public opinion and stick it. You contribute nothing to understanding the accident and just preen your own feathers.

  10. Julie

    Kevin, thanks for this post. It actually got me thinking about how Twitter is affecting the way people react in disaster situations. I referenced you in C.Fox Communications’ latest blog post on the subject. Check it out and let me know what you think – does social media help or hurt our reactions to disasters?

  11. Stuart

    It’s the nature of breaking news that sometimes what is breaking is wrong — that’s why it is called “breaking”.

    However when you have a breaking news story on Twitter it is far simpler to tap down (for instance in this case by using a #qantas hash tag) than say if a bunch of wires (cough cough Reuters) go with the wrong news, in which case the airline needs to chase up each agency pushing out a correction.

    Does Qantas have a Twitter account yet?

  12. Alasdair MacGregor

    “But this could be a storm in a teacup, only the people ON twitter knew that qantas was not there.”

    Absolutely right Qantas could have and should have been prepared to do better. I think there was a time you could say the above statement was true, but the news cycle hangs on Twitter’s coat tails and there are now always TWO stories – 1) the incident; 2) what has happened on Twitter – ESPECIALLY when things go wrong.

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  14. Paul Wallbank

    You make a good point about social media channels versus traditional media but I think you’re being a bit unfair on Qantas and their social media team.

    We have to keep in mind everyone is learning in this space. None of us have been here before.

    As you rightly point out, the lesson here for Qantas and any other business is when a fast moving crisis hits, you have to consolidate your social media channels and point them to a status page.

    It also illustrates how important it is for organisations to take social media seriously as Qantas could have found themselves claiming there were no debris for hours while photos of the parts were gleefully circulated around the net.

    Great food for thought and I think we’ve all learned something from this.

    • Graham

      @Paul – I don’t think it’s unfair to Qantas’ social media team to say they could have done better, there are great examples of how this could have been handled by some other airlines that are quite active on Twitter (Southwest, Jetblue etc). I think there were enough posts and mini case studies from the ashcloud incident that some of the learning should have already happened.

      Its not actually all the complicated, engage your customers where they are talking and give them answers.

      But this could be a storm in a teacup, only the people ON twitter knew that qantas was not there.

      • Paul Wallbank

        Good comments, Graham, but I’d like to see a few of those case studies on dealing with events like this.

        The ashcloud incident is different to this one and I think we underestimate just how confused communications channels can become in times of crisis.

        I think it’s clear one lesson is organisations need to keep an up to date list og which platforms they are using and what accounts they have on them.

        When a major crisis arises, thankfully for most it doesn’t involve the lives of 400+ people, they can they point all of those channels towards a single point of contact which is kept up to date with the latest status.

        We need to also keep in mind that while most managers in these large corporations are timid careerists, they also do have responsibilities to their customers, staff and shareholders in making statements.

        They should monitor and verify every report they get, but jumping at shadows from every misguided report on Twitter or CNN is only going to make matters worse for everyone as well as distract management in a time of crisis.

        As I said before, it’s a learning process which we’re all still in.

  15. Simon Gunson

    Scorching from behind the Low Pressure fan (- where there is no fuel combustion) indicates there was a surge and backfire.

    For whatever reason there was an excess supply of fuel into the High pressure turbine (-where the panels were blown away by an exiting broken fan blade)

  16. Henry Pepper

    You can objectively measure the failure of top-down management cultures to handle media crisis yet still the same thing happens again and again. Why is this so?

    Because when process-driven managers have to manage a live brand-trheatening crisis, they seize up. They duck. These people are largely careerists, who want to play safe, who chose staff who will not think for themselves or challenge the corporate chain of command.

    Yet media crisis management requires bold strategic thinking that is quickly applied. These situations require news sense, a focus on damage minimisation and courage, something that is not taught in MBA courses.

    The channel is less relevant than the need to hose down media falsehoods wherever they may occur by quickly provide accurate information and preventing the opportunity for rumours to gain momentum.

    As an experienced issues manager I can tell you there’s nothing new in this communication failure, or the lack of accountability by management. It happens everyday.

  17. eyeswiredopen

    Twitter also spread the false news of a crash faster than any news outlet. You ignore that. Why?

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @eyeswiredopen – indeed it did.

      I didn’t ignore it. We are simply saying that companies need to have a grip on trying to tame the unwieldy beast that is Twitter.

  18. Deb Budd

    The story broke on late TV newscasts here in the US (Atlantic coast), and newscasters were flailing to determine what had actually happened. First it was a crash. Then it was a mid-air explosion. Then it was debris from a mid-air explosion, and they were checking whether the plane went down or returned to Singapore. Obviously, the lack of a prompt Qantas response meant that news coverage relied on online rumor rather than actual “news.” Welcome to the “new” news cycle. If it isn’t instantly available from a reliable source, report whatever everyone else is saying. Companies need to get up to speed with the speed of viral “reporting,” and jump on crises through all available channels.



    So what is the difference between social media today and the first broadcasts from CNN when they first reported live to air.

    Same misreporting and lack of confirmation of adhoc reports.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @thinkingmedia – true.

      my point isn’t about the channel, it’s about how organisations use such channels to communication effectively.

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  21. Rhys

    What needs to be kept in mind is the attitude towards Qantas here in Australia.

    Qantas has been under the pump here massively, with the media being very negative towards the national carrier. As stupid as it sounds, I don’t think Qantas would appreciate the criticism that would no doubt follow if they only released a statement on twitter.

    Soon after the incident Qantas PR were on the phone to all the major news stations here getting the facts out there, from the horses mouth, so to speak. I think this strategy worked, but perhaps Qantas will need to take a view to being a bit more active in the twitter-sphere.

  22. Stuart

    While I think Qantas really dropped the ball on this from a PR angle, obviously they had more pressing issues on their mind at the time.

    However, when the story broke onto Twitter (first via BNO, then from a number of Indonesian news sources – Kompas and Detik primarily), the picture was pretty grim. People in Batam (an island very near Singapore) reported hearing an explosion, seeing a plane trailing smoke and this was followed by reports of people picking up debris. That was when I started tweeting it (at the time I thought my father was on the flight – he wasn’t). Then the NYT string in Jakarta reported that the debris was in fact a plane door and the aircraft had made an emergency landing at Changi.

    Had Qantas bothered to have an active Twitter account, THIS is when they sould have stepped in with a tweet along the lines of “Reports of crash false. QF32 has made an emergency landing in Singapore due to an engine incident” (anyone familiar with Qantas will know they don’t crash, they just have incidents).

    But they didn’t have a Twitter account and so had all sorts of rumours and incorrect info flying around the Twitter-sphere. Yes it is a breaking story and some errors are to be expected, but a more capable PR approach would have seen the story shift from breaking to accurate news in a far shorter time span.

    • Eric Johnson

      Great lessons for airlines & other major corporations. A short tweet upfront with link to their website could’ve prevented much of this stories negative effects. Your example tweet is perfect ““Reports of crash false. QF32 has made an emergency landing in Singapore due to an engine incident””

      Basically, Yes something has happened & it’s on the ground. More info coming as it is confirmed is all it needs to get across.

      Airlines have command centers to handle issues of all kinds (weather, diverts, inflight emergencies, etc). Checklists would help them get thru the issue at hand.

      One area/task has to be public communications/PR and talking/emailing info to the media. Adding Twitter as the top high priority task must be done in these days of 24/7 communications. This tweet will beat every other form (news site, Facebook, etc) by at least 30 minutes and would’ve given great assurance to you & other family/friends of the passengers onboard.

      Hopefully Quantas will make these changes right away.

  23. JanSimpson

    Nice post – however I disagree – the French A model Airplanes have been a source of accidents all over the world and in fact the Road Warriors will not fly on those planes. So the fact that facts are actually getting out about these planes and the airlines flying these death bombs is a good thing.

    As a road warrior for a many years, I refused to fly on any A model from the French – I don’t care how much they paid for them, the airlines shouldn’t have a bean counter to say how many people can die before they those lose money – the planes rust from the inside out and no one complained –

    Social media is good for this Corporate Unioned Based Watch Dog. Unions are bad for this planet and need to be broken.

    Jan Simpson

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @jan – your comment is pretty out of context. Back up your assertion about reliability of A380s please…

  24. Andy Jarosz

    Exactly my thoughts Kevin. Active communication on Twitter in the acute phase of a crisis (where rumours are rampant and real information is scarce) is not always appropriate. But a simple link to the holding statement is enough to show that they are on the ball.

    • DM

      I think if you have a crisis running everywhere you have to answer everywhere, that’s why I think Communication/PR must be as close as CEO as possible. Someone should have given information to the people in charge with the Twitter accounts faster than it was, specially when we know in twitter the info will spread faster, a lots of people where very worried about it…

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  26. tempo dulu

    But of course twitters will be ahead of the game; the airline cannot react instantly as it has to check its info first. And as you said, the most important thing is everyone is safe. What really matters is that Quantas makes sure all its planes are safe.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @temp dulu – you are right, of course.

      But not using Twitter channel(s) to direct people to a holding page with the official latest information is perhaps a mistake?

    • Graham

      But if Twitter is ahead of the game, doesn’t that mean Qantas have to be “ahead of the game” as well? This is how fast the world hears about things, businesses have to be in there too or they just look out of touch. Plus, Twitter isn’t exactly a small network now.

    • Bruce Sweigert

      The problem is that every time Qantas issues a statement, must be official since anything they say can be used in legal action against them. Also keep in mind, its not just Qantas but their partners Airbus and Rolls-Royce they must consider with any statement. Especially with regards to a safety incident, public statements must have several levels of checks.

      Social Media users can say what they want – right or wrong without first verifying facts. There is no accountability for accuracy.

      Unfortunately, Qantas will be the subject of unfair speculation with regards to safety for some time to come.


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