The Qantas lockout and social media #fail

I was asked over the weekend to comment on the use of social media by Qantas, who on Saturday announced that they would lock out their workforce and ground their entire fleet. It is now clear that this was an attempt by CEO Alan Joyce and Chairman Leigh Clifford to bully their workforce during collective bargaining.

I made the observation that despite the lockout and grounding being premeditated and planned well in advance of the announcement, Qantas’ social media use was almost a text-book example of what not to do during a crisis.

Over at MarketingMag, Simon Dell has written an article arguing that:

A ‘social media strategist’ was quoted as saying that Qantas had dealt with this very badly in the social media space, just tweeting and responding to everything with broadcast tweets, rather than addressing specific issues. That, to me, is the mark of a social media strategist unable to understand the PR side of the situation. How was Qantas going to reply to the tens of thousands of tweets? How do they prioritise one over the other? Where’s the manpower to reply to them all?

They did what they had to do in moments like that: kept quiet. It was already a PR disaster. The Qantas board knew what it was going to mean when he made the decision. Having someone try and reply to tweets wasn’t going to fix anything. Best to just shut up, sit quietly and ride it out. Anything they said was going to make it worse.

So, if you’re interested, here are my views on Qantas and its use of social media during the lockout:

As a semi-regular flyer, my perception of the “damage” to Qantas is seen in terms of “reliability”. One of the main problems for Tiger for example was that it constantly (in the eyes of the traveling public) cancelled flights. The low cost was seen in terms of not actually arriving in the chosen destination.

The lockout of staff and grounding of the Qantas fleet by Alan Joyce means the “reliability” question for travellers is writ large.

A corollary to this is that during the actual grounding of the fleet, passengers and their families wanted information. The broadcast nature of the Qantas social media accounts (especially Twitter) meant 2 things.

  1. The thousands of passengers and their families looking for information about their flights got no information (= Qantas is unreliable); and
  2. The social media space was taken up by others, especially the unions, dissatisfied Qantas staff, angry passengers, frustrated families, annoyed taxi drivers and so on.

While the Qantas PR machine was in over-drive getting their key messages out to traditional media (especially television and newspaper journalists), they left the social media space almost entirely alone. Qantas certainly did not “keep quiet” as Dell suggests they did. They were out there briefing journalists and discussing strategy (it now appears) with senior Liberal Party politicians.

Crisis management 101 says you should not “shut up”. This lets others tell your story. You should be out there, taking command of the situation. Instead, Alan Joyce and Qantas management blamed external factors (union) for the crisis, rather than taking responsibility. A golden rule of crisis management is that “it is impossible to over-communicate during a crisis”. While Qantas did a fair job in briefing newspaper journalists, they definitely under-communicated online.

What could they have done? Overall, take a leaf from the book of the various banks who recently had their IT systems break down (resulting in no money transfers, broken ATMs, etc):

  • Replied to passengers with details of who they could contact for more information – the Qantas customer service phone line or an email address. If there were 1000s, its fairly easy to have a standard reply and to only respond to those asking for specific information about flights. The questions Dell asks about how to prioritise, etc, would be fairly standard social media customers service fair — just ask the banks.
  • Tweeted (or re-tweeted or live-tweeted) the various interviews and other lines that CEO Alan Joyce was giving to the traditional media (or at least linked to stories). In terms of the PR battle, they could also have re-tweeted supportive messages.
  • Given updates more than once every hour or two – especially for passengers “who come in late” to the grounding story. On Saturday they were down to one tweet an hour.
  • Put out their line on why the fleet was grounded (in the Fair Work Commission, they said under oath that it was over “safety concerns” due to stressed pilots).

Obviously, Qantas hasn’t invested in the social media infrastructure that some banks and other large corporations have (Vodafone is another good example of a corporation that provides “crisis” customers service using social media). However, given that the grounding was premediated and known well in advance by senior Qantas executives, I’d have thought that one of them would have pumped more resources into the PR/Comms dept before the grounding took effect.

In my view, Alan Joyce and the Qantas management mostly botched the job of communicating during the lockout. They left most of the public communications to third-parties like Tony Abbott, the Liberal Party and extreme corporate peak-bodies. They didn’t provide talking heads to the scores of 24 hour news shows.

Latika Bourke, an ABC journalist who covered the story extensively on Twitter, including the Fair Work hearings over the weekend, commented on Monday that many of her Twitter followers were Qantas passengers and staff, who were turning to her live-tweeting of the lockout and Fair Work hearings to get accurate information about what was going on. This is a gap that Qantas should have filled.

What’s more, they missed out on a prime opportunity to directly talk to their frustrated customers whose travel plans were disrupted. However, they now have the opportunity to follow up their disrupted passengers with all those cheap flight offers and discounts — using social media. Let’s see if they do.

Overall, I think Alan Joyce’s decision to lock out his workforce is despicable. With Qantas Chairman Leight Clifford having “form” in the deunionisation of Rio Tinto, it’s clear that this lockout and grounding is part of a strategy to deunionise Qantas and off-shore as many of its workers as possible to countries with poorer workplace rights than Australia.

I can only hope that Qantas remains a strong Australian airline, and that corporate grubs like Joyce and Clifford are hastily shown the door.

4 responses to “The Qantas lockout and social media #fail”

  1. Matt Avatar

    What a pathetic attempt by a biased, union-employed communications professional to give one side a blast based on their own personal/employer’s views of the Qantas action.

    There may have been some good points relating to improvements that could have been taken relating to providing information, but it feels more like it’s designed to highlight the negative outcomes of the action by Qantas, under the guise of it being about their use of the communication medium.

    It would have been nice to see him cover the Union’s social media updates to it’s members about their actions thus far and addressing any pitfalls of their own approach. I can image there were a bunch of union members worried that the resultant lack of business could mean job cuts in the future. Not for the union reps of course.

    I shouldn’t be surprised though, propaganda and marketing can often tread a fine line, but that’s Union Management 101.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Matt — of course I’m biased. I’m a proud unionist (this fact is in all my online bios). I’ve written extensively about union use of social media, and this post was specifically in response to a request to write about Qantas’ use of social media. Glad that you’ve also grudgingly acknowledged that there are “some good points”.

      1. Matt Avatar

        Hi Alex,

        Point taken, I’m obviously a novice at replying to articles/comments – I actually thought I was responding on the original Marketing website post rather than your own blog!

        I also gladly accept that you’re not trying to shy away from your unionist position and in the context of your own blog, which I have obviously never read, very appropriate.

        I often get the shits with people hiding begind anonymous posts when they’re bagging someone and although it wasn’t my intention, (this issue stirred me enough to actually post my opinion), it appears I have done that myself in firing off at the wrong source, in the wrong manner and for that, I apologise.

        For what it’s worth, I’m not completely anti-union, I’m just against all forms of extremist views and that’s what the major labour unions have projected, to me.

      2. Alex Avatar

        Hi Matt – thanks for the apology. It is of course accepted, and I encourage you to read more about the Qantas unions’ perspective with an open mind, as a moderate payrise and claims for job security are hardly extremist.

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