Social media gurus should give Qantas a break

If industrial unrest wasn’t bad enough, Qantas is now being widely criticized for its social media efforts during the recent 48-hour shutdown.

Critics are charging the airline with being “too corporate” on Twitter and not responding to individual customers’ needs.

In addition, so-called social media “experts” far and wide have come out of the woodwork to pile on, charging the airline with being completely ineffective in talking to its customers during this time and effectively turning its @QantasAirways Twitter account into a one-way monologue.

Which begs the simple question: how could Qantas have handled this crisis differently?

It’s quite easy to say that Qantas should have responded individually to the approximately 98,000 passengers affected by this shutdown.

But would anything have changed? Probably not.

The airline was, for all intents and purposes, in completely uncharted territory – it had grounded 108 planes in 22 cities around the world.

Would thousands of individual “I’m sorry, but we’re not flying today” responses changed anything or made any customer feel more appreciated?

Extremely doubtful.

While social media is an effective communications medium for dealing with individual service issues, it’s fair to say that even the most well-staffed social media department is ill-equipped to handle a situation of this magnitude, especially in the sort of compressed timeframe which kicked off early on Saturday and was on the path to comeing back on-stream by Sunday night.

But things obviously could have been handled better.

The core of any social media crisis response should be not only informational as Qantas was trying to be, but an attempt to control the message.

In this, Qantas failed and demonstrated that even internally, social media staff were reacting to a fast-developing situation rather than having been prepared for it.

A recent report by Altimeter Research – Social Readiness: How Advanced Companies Prepare – shows that Qantas isn’t alone: more than half of companies with advanced social media strategies haven’t developed a social media crisis plan.

Amongst the recommendations cited in the report is a clear, top-down level blessing of a team that has the full authority to speak for and on behalf of the company.

In Qantas’ case, one could argue that on the day the shutdown started, this was all the company was prepared to say. But it clearly didn’t sit well with customers.

On the second day of the shutdown, thw airline’s social media tone shifted and it started responding by literally sending hundreds of individual replies to customers.

At one point, Qantas even exceeded a Twitter-imposed limit on the number of @replies it could send, showing the company was making an effort to gain ground on this customer service crisis.

The company has since then ratcheted up its response rates even more, demonstrating that critiques about its social media reaction being too “one way” were unwarranted.

The lessons learned are two-fold:

  • First, there is no good answer or response when an airline stops flying entirely. No matter the communication channel, customers will be upset, afraid, and full of uncertainty. The natural human reaction to these feelings is to try to talk with someone who can fix the situation as soon as possible. But just like its call center agents, Qantas’ social media staff had very few options for fixing anything or making customers feel better.
  • Second, preparedness for a crisis such as this is paramount, and airlines in particular should have well-prepared social media response plans so that they can effectively communicate with their customers and deliver as much information as quickly possible.

In the end, that’s all customers really want.

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Alex Kremer

About the Writer :: Alex Kremer

Alex Kremer is co-founder and head of product at Redeam, an electronic ticketing platform serving the tours & activities industry. He was previously Senior Vice President of Partnerships at Nor1, a leading hospitality merchandising provider. He joined Nor1 after it acquired Flextrip, a B2B tours & activities distribution network he co-founded. Alex is a 15-year veteran of technology startup companies, previously co-founding Cruvee, a business intelligence company for the wine industry where he led Business Development. Prior to that, he co-founded FanAxis, one of the world’s first fan club management and merchandising firms in the music and entertainment industries. Alex is based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter at axk.



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  1. martin kelly

    Seriously, social media would have been the last thing on the mind of Alan Joyce when he decided to shut the airline down to force a resolution to an industrial relations nightmare. It all had to be done in secret and at the last minute to keep unions in the dark. No doubt 99.99% of staff in the same position. Tough decision but sometimes it is best just to keep your mouth shut and wear some short-term damage for long-term advantage, which is what they have done.

  2. Philippe Scheimann

    good question 🙂
    Let me try to answer it.
    Reps from Qantas call centers are working for Qantas. Hopefully for Qantas and its travelers, there is no crisis every day. Actually, it very seldom happens.
    So, even if reps may have some good skills of a travel agent , that is find a hotel, an alternative flight involving multiple stops, different means of transportation, they do not have the almost daily experience of a travel agent.
    For instance, our travel agents have to deal almost every day with a crisis situation.
    They know how to deal with it.

    You know what?
    Just give a problem to a travel agent, he/she will be happy to solve it. This is their bread and butter.

    On the other hand, reps from Qantas airlines may be good at handling issues particular to the airlines that are not so complex.

    When complexity comes as it happened several days ago, they have a hard time to handle it.

  3. Philippe Scheimann

    I would actually rephrase the problem as such:
    Qantas is a commercial company and needs to make sure that its customers are satisfied.
    In this case of crisis, there is a need to manage the crisis as best as possible so that customers’ s needs can be fulfilled.
    Providing an answer saying, even personally, that they are sorry and they are working on a solution, is already something but it is not enough.
    In the case of many customers, they need to get a solution as soon as possible.
    Who is able to provide alternative flights, a hotel, charting a bus together?
    We’re saying that reps from Qantas call centers do not have all the expertise that an experienced travel agent has.
    In this case, it would have been a great idea to get outside help from professionals.
    That’s where a service like comes into the picture.
    We have a network of official travel agents who have years of experience helping stranded travelers.
    They may not be able to find solutions in every case but they will do their best to help travelers.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May


      “We’re saying that reps from Qantas call centers do not have all the expertise that an experienced travel agent has”…



  4. Glenn Gruber

    Alex, spot on post. Besides not having a strategy in place before the crisis, where I think Quantas missed the boat, was on the medium that they chose. You can only say so much in 140 characters.

    What I think they should have done was create a 3-5 minute YouTube video where they could have explained in detail why they grounded all those planes and how they were going to accommodate (if at all) the passengers they stranded.

    The video would have come across more personal, the message would have been clearer and they could have posted links to the video on Twitter, Facebook, their website and anywhere else they felt appropriate.

  5. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Qantas has not quite learned the lessons of JetBlue and Delta. In my view Delta got this right with their approach of using twitter and facebook with Delta assist.

    Regular readers to TNooz will note two articles on the subject:

    After the US bad weather –

    And an indepth report by our own intrepid Dennis –

    Clearly the whole event caught QF off guard in the way it was managed. HOWEVER – the gamble of how they managed the process for the airline to enable it to restart so quickly paid off. Obviously someone thought long and hard about this.

    The future of managing these forms of crisis has changed. Twitter and Facebook are real value tools that change the game.

    As a suggestion I would say check out what Alaska and Continental have on their websites as tools for communication. Technology can go a long way to improving the ability of the consumer to get the information accurately and fast. The Aussie Government’s response was less useful. They too need to learn from this episode.

    Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the action – how you treat the customer will come back to you – good or bad.


  6. Daniele Beccari

    I agree with your post Alex, it’s like shooting on the dead – useless and paranoid.
    Let’s hope the QF teams will find a way to work together again.

  7. Michael

    Pardon the french but what makes you think Qantas gives a damn?

    They fail time and again with customer services (I have flown with them numerous times and for some inexplicable reason, my being an asian always get short draw of the stick when it comes to any form of attention in the cabin and they do their darnest to keep you in the dark if you’re not their top FF Flyers and the amount of switcharoo they do with the program, not to mention the surly call centre (is it in Australia) is just breathtaking.

    At the end of the day, so what if the airline never crashed before? Will anyone know if noone flies with it?

    • Amelia

      Michael, if you assume being Asian makes Qantas give you worse service then I guess you’d assume my white skin would make me get good service? Cos I promise you that the dozens of times I’ve flown Qantas I get the exact same mediocre service as you!
      I also got a total brush-off by rude Singapore Airlines hosties last year when I was travelling alone and got sick after take-off and was throwing up. I assumed they just didn’t care about customers and certainly didn’t interpret the poor treatment as being anything about my race – should I have? Using your rationale?


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