Three Airlines' Twitter Troubles, and Takeaways for Brands

How Did Cathay Pacific, JetBlue and Malaysia Airlines Put Out Fires on Social Media?

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From JetBlue's Twitter account
From JetBlue's Twitter account

There are plenty of pitfalls for brands on Twitter, but airlines have more difficulties to navigate than most. Air travel can be irritating and exhausting -- and for some people, anxiety-inducing. Travelers tweet complaints about everything from bad food to cancellations, and their gripes can go viral fast, especially if they're celebrities.

That's what happened to Cathay Pacific this week after a rant by actor Seth Rogen. Another case involved JetBlue and a disgruntled YouTube star. And finally, there was a botched tweet from Malaysia Airlines -- a company already in an incredibly tough position after two flights this year ended in disaster.

Here's a look at how the carriers reacted, and how they (and other brands) might handle things better if they happen again.

Seth Rogen vs. Cathay Pacific

Actor Seth Rogen has 2.36 million Twitter followers. So a lot of people noticed when he complained about Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, voted the world's best airline in 2014 in a global survey by Skytrax. "I advise everyone to never fly @cathaypacific if possible," he tweeted. "They are bad people."

He explained: "My wife is missing a funeral because @cathaypacific wouldn't let her and our dog on a plane after they let us book the trip with the dog." (Spoiled star behavior, or legitimate consumer issue? Reactions varied.)

Cathay Pacific quickly sent a public tweet to the star, saying it regretted his disappointment and asking for details via private direct message.

It's not clear how the airline smoothed things over, and it did not respond to a request for explanation. But 11 hours later Mr. Rogen tweeted: "thanks @cathaypacific for your promise to change your communication with your passengers and apology. We cool? We cool."

So everything worked out – though if things had been resolved sooner, there wouldn't have been time for so many bloggers and reporters to write about it. (The Washington Post headline was "Here's why Seth Rogen thinks Cathay Pacific is a terrible airline.") It doesn't appear any media revisited the story to note that the spat had been cleared up.

'JetBlue Hates Me'

Matthew Lush, who goes by the YouTube handle GayGod, often uses his online stardom to chronicle his relationship with his boyfriend. But his latest video is called "JetBlue Hates Me," and it's had nearly 135,000 views.

Mr. Lush tried to get a refund from JetBlue for a flight he didn't realize he had actually booked, because of technical problems; when that didn't happen, he went on Twitter with boycott calls and a personal attack on the customer service rep who dealt with his case. (One message directed at her, a still from the movie "Mean Girls," called her a series of nasty, unprintable adjectives.) His fans responded with similar.

Then JetBlue barred him from boarding. Mr. Lush tweeted, "Is this how they treat their customers? Or only their LGBTQA+ customers?"

JetBlue said in a statement that it embraces the diversity of its customers and crew members and "would not discriminate." It added that airport officials and flight crew make decisions to bar people from flights based on whether their presence could lead to diversions and delays for everyone else.

As in Mr. Rogen's case, "the airline has the challenge of respecting the privacy of the customer while dealing with a furious flyer," said Walter Jennings, senior adviser with Omnicom's Kreab Gavin Anderson , who works with top-level clients. But this case is trickier.

"I think JetBlue has work to do to promote what it is doing in CSR among various communities, and I know it has a great track record on LGBT issues," he said. "If it were to delve deeper into going one-to-one against this person, it would lose. In the social media sphere, the unique and talented individual is always going to win."

Malaysia Airlines

#Keepflying. Maudin or inspirational?
#Keepflying. Maudin or inspirational?

"Want to go somewhere, but don't know where?" Malaysia Airlines tweeted in late November. What the carrier thought was an innocuous promotional tweet actually reminded people of MH370, which disappeared in March with 239 people on board. (A second Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing 298.)

The struggling airline, which bungled an earlier promotion this year, apologized and removed the tweet. Though it remains active on Facebook, it hasn't tweeted since Nov. 27.

Mohd Hisham Saleh, head of social media and innovations for the airline, wrote in an email that the lull in tweets was due to a focus on responding to customer inquiries during the holiday season, and that it would return to Twitter later this week with limited frequency.

Marcus Osborne, founder and CEO of Malaysia-focused brand consultancy FusionBrand, said that the airline's main hashtag --#KeepFlying, paired with inspirational photos – is also "terrible, because it makes you think of the plane that 'kept flying' until it appeared to run out of fuel."

It may be partly an issue of non-native English speakers not understanding language nuances, he said. But many missteps show the airline and any agency partners need to put better processes and oversight in place, he said.

"When you've got an airline in dire straights because of two dreadful accidents, every single mistake from that airline is magnified and makes you question their competency," Mr. Osborne said.

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