As thousands of people were scrabbling to change their travel arrangements earlier this month, to avoid being stranded by the British Airways strikes, the airline was conducting a damage-limitation exercise via YouTube.
This quick social-media turnaround was not an off-the-cuff response to the crisis, but part of a detailed contingency plan that BA had put in place before the strike dates were announced.
Social media reaches 77% of the online population and sites such as Facebook and Twitter are used by 28.3m people in the UK, according to research company InSites Consulting. This means that using the channel to communicate with consumers during an emergency has become imperative for brands.
Jill Lloyd, head of social media at digital agency LBi, suggests that brands should always, as BA did, develop a social-media crisis-response strategy before any serious problems arise. To minimise the damage, she advises marketers be ready to respond swiftly and ensure they have the necessary resources to cope with public questions.
This wisdom in this is demonstrated by the success of British Airways' tactical marketing campaign. A series of videos featuring chief executive Willie Walsh providing updates on the impact of the strike and apologising for the inconvenience caused to customers has received more than 100,000 hits on YouTube and BA.com. According to research carried out for Marketing, the videos improved perceptions of the British Airways brand among 19% of the people who had seen them (Marketing, 24 March).
However, finding the right tone for social media, while keeping a brand's values intact, is not without its challenges. Nestle recently found this out to its cost, when it first demanded the removal of a critical Greenpeace video from YouTube and then deleted related posts from its Facebook page.
Will McInnes, managing director of social-media agency Nixon McInnes, characterises Nestle's approach as being too 'heavy-handed' and 'faceless' and suggests this is the reason customers were turned off. He argues the company should have opened up an honest dialogue with customers and offered them frank and accurate responses to queries. 'Getting the right tone is about being human about the issue,' he adds. 'It involves treading a fine line.'
McInnes warns that any deviation from this line can have a negative and potentially long-term impact on the brand. 'If a brand gets its social-media message wrong, it can destroy shareholder value and damage the brand for decades,' he says.
Chris Davies, British Airways' head of digital marketing, believes the approach of many brands to social media is fundamentally flawed. 'You have to understand what people want to hear,' he says. 'Brands that attempt to dictate will end up agitating consumers. Getting social media right is about being helpful and honest, and understanding how online communities communicate. You also have to add value.'
Successful social-media activity, such as the Aleksandr the meerkat Facebook page and Twitter account, created by VCCP for price-comparison site Comparethemarket, can lend significant weight to an above-the-line campaign. The comparethemarket Facebook page alone has more than 711,000 fans.
'Brands don't have a choice but to do social media ' says Ian Armstrong, manager, European communications for Honda. 'In a crisis, the medium can influence behaviour and brands can't opt out as consumers will continue to use it. The brands just have to maintain a strong position and be true to their values; the tone should reflect that.'
While it is too early to say whether Nestle's social-media misstep will have a lasting impact on the company's reputation, it is clear that planning, a balanced tone and transparent communication overall are crucial to successful brand advocacy on this platform.
As Armstrong concludes: 'You can choose to be a part of social media or not, but, ultimately, brands that use it will have a better relationship with customers and better performance. Those who don't embrace it will lose out.'
Social media reaches
77% of the online population
Source: InSites Consulting