If industrial unrest wasn't bad enough, Qantas is now being widely criticized for its social media efforts during the recent 48-hour shutdown.
Critics are charging the airline with being "too corporate" on Twitter and not responding to individual customers' needs.
In addition, so-called social media "experts" far and wide have come out of the woodwork to pile on, charging the airline with being completely ineffective in talking to its customers during this time and effectively turning its @QantasAirways Twitter account into a one-way monologue.
Which begs the simple question: how could Qantas have handled this crisis differently?
It's quite easy to say that Qantas should have responded individually to the approximately 98,000 passengers affected by this shutdown.
But would anything have changed? Probably not.
The airline was, for all intents and purposes, in completely uncharted territory - it had grounded 108 planes in 22 cities around the world.
Would thousands of individual "I'm sorry, but we're not flying today" responses changed anything or made any customer feel more appreciated?
While social media is an effective communications medium for dealing with individual service issues, it's fair to say that even the most well-staffed social media department is ill-equipped to handle a situation of this magnitude, especially in the sort of compressed timeframe which kicked off early on Saturday and was on the path to comeing back on-stream by Sunday night.
But things obviously could have been handled better.
The core of any social media crisis response should be not only informational as Qantas was trying to be, but an attempt to control the message.
In this, Qantas failed and demonstrated that even internally, social media staff were reacting to a fast-developing situation rather than having been prepared for it.
A recent report by Altimeter Research - Social Readiness: How Advanced Companies Prepare - shows that Qantas isn't alone: more than half of companies with advanced social media strategies haven't developed a social media crisis plan.
Amongst the recommendations cited in the report is a clear, top-down level blessing of a team that has the full authority to speak for and on behalf of the company.
In Qantas' case, one could argue that on the day the shutdown started, this was all the company was prepared to say. But it clearly didn't sit well with customers.
On the second day of the shutdown, thw airline's social media tone shifted and it started responding by literally sending hundreds of individual replies to customers.
At one point, Qantas even exceeded a Twitter-imposed limit on the number of @replies it could send, showing the company was making an effort to gain ground on this customer service crisis.
The company has since then ratcheted up its response rates even more, demonstrating that critiques about its social media reaction being too "one way" were unwarranted.
The lessons learned are two-fold:
- First, there is no good answer or response when an airline stops flying entirely. No matter the communication channel, customers will be upset, afraid, and full of uncertainty. The natural human reaction to these feelings is to try to talk with someone who can fix the situation as soon as possible. But just like its call center agents, Qantas' social media staff had very few options for fixing anything or making customers feel better.
- Second, preparedness for a crisis such as this is paramount, and airlines in particular should have well-prepared social media response plans so that they can effectively communicate with their customers and deliver as much information as quickly possible.
In the end, that's all customers really want.