Late last month, Virgin Atlantic fired 13 flight attendants for making disparaging comments about safety and passengers in a Facebook forum. British Airways followed a few days later to punish employees who posted references to travelers as "smelly" and "annoying."
As the proponents of social media tell it, these were examples of the necessity for companies to 1) have better rules about employee blogging, 2) monitor more closely the places where they might talk, and 3) more aggressively participate in said media, from a corporate perspective.
Here's a novel, alternate idea: fix your management problems. Skip thinking the answer is to do a better job of tail wagging, and ask different questions of the dog.
It's not a secret that airline passengers are often both smelly and obnoxious. Anybody who has to fly more than one a year will tell you so. I had a flight delayed earlier this week because a passenger couldn't find room to store her suitcase in the cabin, and needed let let everyone within earshot know just how unhappy she was (and that we were all complicit offenders). I've sat next to people removing nail polish, and others eating giant pizzas.
And maintenance, like service, is directly dependent on the available time and resources to deliver it, so it's more than likely that some lesser priority items might sometimes (or often) slip. One of the fired attendants referenced cockroaches in plane galleys. Would any of us be surprised to see that? Not me.
So the airline employees weren't fired because they used social media. They were fired because they told the truth, and social media just happened to be the way they did it. Whatever they'd posted online had probably been the topics of face-to-face conversations for a long, long time.
If the marketers at Virgin or BA had any self-respect, they'd refuse to act as the media gestapo, and decline to spend any more company money outsourcing enforcement policies to external mercenaries. Instead, they should help their employers see the real problems that need fixing:
- You can't cut staff and expect fewer people to maintain the same (let alone better) service, whether serving drinks or cleaning the planes
- You can't declare policies -- like bag or food charges -- and then expect the employees to absorb the negative reactions from passengers
- Plane turn-around schedules can't be so tight that plane clean-up has to start 20 minutes before the things actually land, and
- You can't let passengers treat airplane cabins as their own personal space, with no obvious rules for their behavior. Remember, these are the people who don't stop a stop signs because they're talking on their phones. They cut lines at Starbucks. There need to be standards posted and enforced.
While I know that every external factor has made it nearly impossible for airlines to be profitable, they've done their very best to make sure that their employees fail. No amount of branding communications -- or policing -- can or should change that.
Figure out ways to make airplane cabins more pleasant, and get rid of the cockroaches in the galleys, and there’ll be no more negative posts on Facebook or anywhere else. That's the real branding challenge, and the message everyone needs to hear.
What the airlines have been doing so far is shooting the messenger.