Qantas gets lesson in social media

So you’ve created a profile page and uploaded some cool photos, and finally understood the difference between the ‘@’ and ‘#’ on Twitter. Your followers are growing and you’re having a great time making conversation with the fans. While social media might seem like a breeze and an excuse for a casual chat at work, it is certainly not a media platform that a company can take lightly, or pay little attention to.

Over the weekend, Qantas learnt the hard way that communication on social media can backfire.

A photo uploaded and tweeted out by Qantas of two men ‘blacked up’ to impersonate their favourite Wallaby rugby player Radike Samo offended followers, many of whom called the photo racist.

The airline held a competition encouraging followers to show the brand how they would show their support for local rugby team the Wallabies at the Bledisloe Cup. The winning entry was from a Charles Butler who promised to dress as Samo, complete with an afro wig, the team’s rugby kit and face paint.

On the night of the game, Qantas tweeted a picture of the contest winners together with Samo, saying that they had “lived up to their promise! Good work”.

With complaints that the photo was racist, the airline removed the photo and tweeted apologies to those offended.

Qantas issued an official apology yesterday.

Mark Cameron, CEO of Working Three, an Australian digital consultancy believes that Qantas’ case highlights a disconnection between the brand’s values and its online activity.

“A senior-level PR representative of Qantas would have never allowed that image to go out,” he tells Marketing.

While many might blame Twitter and its ability to fan flames, Cameron says “social media did not create the issue, the lack of a clear strategic direction and well-defined engagement framework” was to blame.

“This type of mistake tends to happen when a company ‘experiments’ with social media and doesn’t give it the high level of attention it deserves.

“Now, more than ever, a company’s customers own the company’s brand. If the brand personality and emotional drivers are not clearly defined and communicated effectively online, the audience will assign personality and emotion to that brand themselves. And it will probably not be the attributes the company would wish for. They will then look for data to back up their point of view.”

According to Cameron, this is fundamental human behaviour and brands should manage this carefully, instead of fighting it.

“Social media is here to stay and brands need to take it seriously, and realise that the question is not about how to block conversations – as this is something impossible to control – but about how to quickly brand equity can be grown, or eroded online.”

Cameron believes that for brand, not participating at all is the real risk. Cameron suggests that every company’s social media team and brand manager spend more time together and work at developing digital brand strategy, instead of giving the task of updating social media accounts to junior with the reason that “the young ones get this stuff”.

Belle Kwan
BY Belle Kwan ON 29 August 2011
Assistant editor, Marketing magazine &
A marketer's dream who believes everything she sees on TV.
Advertising is not evil, it is an artform and a science.