British low cost airline easyJet has come under public fire over its response to a single tweet – a now infamous snowball effect turning it into a social media saga.  

Let’s take a look at what happened, the impact and how companies can avoid falling foul of the same.  

easyJet responded to Matthew Harris, who posted a photo on Twitter showing a woman sitting on a ‘backless’ plane seat on an easyJet flight. A shocking image, especially for nervous flyers!  

However, it only went viral because of easyJet’s Twitter response to Matthew’s complaint, from their employee, Ross: “Hi Matthew, thanks for bringing this to our attention, before we can investigate this could I ask you to remove the photograph & then DM us more info regarding this, so we can best assist you. – Ross”.  

The words “could I ask you to remove the photograph” imply that easyJet has something to hide. Which is the first social media response fail because it attracted more attention from a huge online audience. Matthew and Ross’s tweets received over 27,000 retweets; journalist requests from the national media; and an ASOS newsjacking with its cheeky ‘easyJet’ backless dress tweet. As momentum built, the public sentiment was unsympathetic towards easyJet’s reply, and Ross even came under fire personally.   

1 in 3 businesses say negative social media post pose the greatest reputation threat

Social media policies – prevention is better than cure 

Rather than providing an explanation or reassuring people reading the post, easyJet requested removal of the image, which fuelled the fire. What they should have done, as it was so publicly visible was to reassure customers and take the specific conversation with Matthew offline. You would expect easyJet to have a social media policy in place and it’s likely they have, it just wasn’t used here.  

Every company should have a social media policy in place. It is a rulebook for all social media managers and their employees (to cover those with personal social media accounts) on the dos and don’ts on company social media channels.  

A social media policy guides, advises and inspires the best and worst cases. It is up there with the top documents to be addressed when preparing for a PR crisis. Its job is to: 

  • Establish a protocol for addressing negative comments.
  • Establish a protocol for positive comments – a shout out from a celebrity or someone with a huge following and high profile.
  • Amplify your brand’s message.
  • Prevent a security breach. 
  • Set out your escalation process.

The policy should be reviewed monthly to keep up to date with the forever changing digital landscape. 

In easyJet’s case, we don’t know whether Ross was following company policy in his reply (it has been speculated that the post was asked to be removed for data protection purposes). Or whether he had crafted his response without direction. It should be noted that after Matthew refused to remove the photo, the conversation was then picked up by a new member of the easyJet social media team. Dan said: “I completely understand Matthew. If you could send me through a DM with more info however, I would appreciate it. Are you on this flight or have you just been sent this? – Dan” 

This could have been a conscious decision by easyJet to protect Ross and remove him from the conversation due to harassment or trolling. We don’t know what happened behind the scenes. However, we do know that it is now Dan’s job to be the main point of contact and take the conversation offline. First port of call should always be to go public first, private second. In his attempt to remove the photo quickly it looks like Ross attempted to go private first. Never, ever delete negative comments or ask for removal.   

The impact of social media responses on brand reputation 

Social media is a tool to amplify your brand’s messages in line with your business objectives. Your social media managers are advocates for your brand and should add value to your company with their tone of voice and excellent customer service skills.   

It is difficult to measure the impact that Ross’s tweet has had on easyJet’s reputation, but it does demonstrate how a response in the public domain can quickly gain traction and make a negative impact on a company’s reputation. The photo of the women in the backless plane seat was seen by thousands and that is damaging to easyJet – especially for those who only saw half the story, and did not see the airline’s official statement: 

“I have the following update: No passengers were permitted to sit in these seats as they were inoperative awaiting repair. Safety is our highest priority and easyJet operates its fleet of aircraft in strict compliance with all safety guidelines. – Dan” 

Addressing the health and safety aspect was the right thing to do – something that cannot be compromised in the aviation industry. This update should have been in the first response from Ross. But the damage had already been done. 

easyJet and other organisations can learn from this experience to create, shape, and improve their social media policy in the future. It also shows the power of social media and the importance of training social media managers. One tweet changed a non-story into a story – and sometimes it’s better to delay a response until you have the facts that jump into a response that could backfire.

Read Igniyte’s report to protecting company reputation from employee risk here.

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