The 2014 US Airways Disaster: Anatomy of a Twitter Fail
It’s rare to witness a genuine apotheosis in real time, but yesterday, if you were on Twitter around noon Pacific time, you may have witnessed the Greatest Twitter Fail of All Time.
A few days ago, US Airways received this complaint from Twitter user @ElleRafter: “@USAirways Unhappy that 1787 sat for an hour on tarmac in CLT because overweight, resulting in over hour late arrival in PDX&” There was a brief, benign exchange. Then days later, in a routine follow-up US Airways tweeted the following (originally with an uncensored image):
If you’d like to know what’s in the blurry zone, you can Google pretty much anything right now and you’ll find it. Suffice it to say, a model jetliner is indicating where Elle should send her feedback, and it’s part of the female anatomy. It’s not clear that it’s a US Airways jetliner, but I don’t think brand synergy is the concern here.
The phrase “epic fail” is losing its potency these days, but it was invented for moments like these. I wouldn’t go out on a limb and say that this is the most epic Corporate Twitter Fail that will ever be, but it’s got to be close, right?
To find out if there’s ever been a more humiliating moment for a corporate Twitter account, I dug into the history of the topic, and I discovered that there are seven types of Corporate Twitter Fail, and that the above works as an example of four of the seven, which is what gives it its exalted status. The heading for each relevant fail category is indicated with a plane, like this:
Here’s an exhaustive history of Twitter fail. After this master class, you might be as familiar with the hazards of Twitter as even the most seasoned social media guru.
1. Poor hashtag foresight:
In the right hands, hashtags can be fun. They can be weapons. They can be tools for changing society. They can also be marketing tools, but break out the hashtag in the wrong context, or with the wrong tone, and you’re asking for the collective minds of Twitter to turn on you.
Qantas learned this in 2011 by introducing the hashtag #QantasLuxury contest in a tweet that read “To enter tell us ‘What is your dream luxury inflight experience? (Be creative!) Answer must include #QantasLuxury.” Always remember that you’re opening yourself up to interactions with people who have negative opinions of you. Thus:
JPMorgan somehow managed to not learn from Qantas’ mistake, and last year, they opened their brand up to questions, with the hashtag #AskJPM.
After the global financial crisis, JPMorgan has many, many more detractors than Qantas. Responses included the following:
- I have Mortgage Fraud, Market Manipulation, Credit Card Abuse, Libor Rigging and Predatory Lending. Am I diversified? #AskJPM
- When Jamie Dimon eats babies are they served rare? I understand anything above medium-rare is considered gauche. #AskJPM
- What’s it like working with Mexican drug cartels? Do they tip? #AskJPM
- Do your clothes fit better since you don’t have the added weight of a soul? #AskJPM
- Can I have my house back? #AskJPM
The British chain store Habitat put more of a black hat spin on things when they started misusing hashtags. Instead of opening themselves up to ridicule, they for some reason spammed twitter with all the most popular hashtags at the moment, a technique usually employed only by the most desperate of low grade SEM teams:
We can’t hate you for being hacked. It happens to all of our least tech-savvy relatives, and we love them. Still, it was hilarious when Burger King’s twitter account got taken over by agents of chaos. In addition to rebranding them as McDonalds, this happened:
A few days later it looked like the same hacker with the telltale McDonalds fixation took over at @Jeep, and rebranded them as Cadillac.
3. Offending People
There are two flavors of offense, and they overlap. You can be attempting to say something innocent, but accidentally bump against hate speech, and then you can just knowingly use words or images you had no business using. When you offend people, though, it doesn’t matter which flavor offense you served. You’d better apologize either way.
Because I have faith in humanity, I’m going to assume someone at The Home Depot just didn’t know how this would be perceived. They just genuinely didn’t know. Please don’t tell me that was unlikely.
But things are a little more complicated when you’re The Onion. They generally aren’t afraid to offend people, most of the time. But this Tweet during the Oscars in 2013:
…didn’t sit right with readers. Quvenzhane Wallis was an eight year-old Oscar nominated actress. The Tweet was an arch attempt to skewer Hollywood gossip, but on the face of it they just called a young child the c-word. I get why people got mad.
This is much less understandable:
This is a clear example of you-should-have-known-better.
It’s not so clear what happened here on the day of The Dark Knight Rises shooting spree:
Not only is that an example of a branded twitter account offending people. It’s also an example of…
4. Riding the coattails of a tragedy
When tragedy strikes, it’s a good idea for people who manage branded twitter accounts to call it a day. The people manning the accounts of perhaps multiple brands at once, each of which has an output quota, are in a tough position if no one comes in and sends them home. There they sit, at their computers, with tragedy on their mind, nonetheless obligated to tweet about things like wholesome breakfast foods in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings:
Or free shipping during Hurricane Sandy.
Or smartphones on the anniversary of 9/11.
It may seem like enough time has passed since a tragedy that you can bring it up in conjunction with your brand and not offend. It’s not worth the risk, particularly when your product is exceptionally frivolous.
And publicizing your charitable donations might seem like a great opportunity for some brand promotion. Twitter isn’t the place for that. It doesn’t play well.
Other gestures that would work in other contexts, also come off as repulsive on twitter. Like this promotion from Microsoft’s iTunes imitation, right after the death of Amy Winehouse:
Placing the CDs close to the checkout counter in a record store, on a little “in memoriam” display would seem OK. But the twitter version of that didn’t work for Microsoft.
The thing is though, when a tragedy is fresh, brands should just stay away from Twitter altogether. One little slip and you can paste the wrong hashtag in a tweet, and end up promoting toys, just after the Newtown shooting.
5. Tonedeaf/robotic response
On a lighter note, it’s always funny when branded twitter accounts are just manned by bots:
But Bank of America says their account is controlled by a team of over 100 people, and this still happened when Occupy protesters started making trouble with them.
This has even happened with my favorite target, Aaron’s, Inc. When the Savings.com account (which is in capable hands, I assure you) @mentioned the Aaron’s Twitter account in a tweet that included a link to a blog I wrote trashing their company, they replied as though it was a customer complaint:
Silly old Aaron’s. Up to their old tricks.
6. The Genuine Crazy Mix-Up
My best guess is that these mix-ups occur when the social media guru is also logged into a personal account at work. They’re tweeting to their friends in one browser, and managing social media for an important NGO in another. Then the mind wanders, and suddenly:
7. The Intern’s Last Day
Last but not least, there are times when Corporate Twitter Fail comes with a whiff of resentment. The kind of resentment that comes from being low on the totem pole at a big organization, and dealing with day-to-day monotony until you can’t take it anymore. That monotony can include traffic:
Or just the other people on twitter.
And it seems perfectly possible that this is what happened with US Airways yesterday. But whatever happened, I’d like to thank the social media manager who brought it to life. I couldn’t have dreamt up a funnier branding disaster in a million years. It was a masterpiece.