5 Lessons From US Airways’ Social Media Scandal (Column)

Ryan Holmes is CEO of HootSuite in Vancouver and a LinkedIn Influencer. This column originally appeared on LinkedIn.com. Last week, US Airways sent out a very NSFW tweet to its more than 420,000 followers. Included in the response to a customer complaint about a delayed flight was a link to an image of a naked […]

Ryan Holmes is CEO of HootSuite in Vancouver and a LinkedIn Influencer. This column originally appeared on LinkedIn.com.

Last week, US Airways sent out a very NSFW tweet to its more than 420,000 followers. Included in the response to a customer complaint about a delayed flight was a link to an image of a naked woman engaged in an explicit act with a model airplane.

Unfortunately, it took nearly an hour before US Airways recognized the problem and deleted the tweet. By then, it was much too late. The offensive image went on to become one of the day’s top trending topics on Twitter, beating out announcements of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize. Major news outlets—from the BBC to CNN—ran stories on the gaffe.

So what went wrong? According to US Airways’ official explanation, the image was “inadvertently” included in the message (well, no surprise there). Apparently, the offending picture had been tweeted by someone earlier in the day to American Airlines (which is merged with US Airways), clearly as a very poor joke. Somehow, this same image then ended up in at least one (and perhaps several) subsequent messages that US Airways sent out from its official Twitter account.

From all appearances, it was an honest—if very uncomfortable—mistake. (Notably, US Airways uses its own in-house social media management tool, which may lack some of the basic safeguards of other applications.) But for large companies using social media, the incident should be a wake-up call.

Embarrassing, brand-eroding mistakes on social media can and do happen all the time. Preventing them isn’t impossible, but it does require a bit of vigilance. With the benefit of hindsight, here’s what US Airways could have done differently:

Restrict access to social media accounts: We’ll probably never know who sent the offending tweet (and it may well have been a senior staff member). But one problem that plagues social media teams at large companies is that the “keys” to major accounts are often shared with junior employees and even interns. Considering that these accounts can have millions of followers, this is a PR disaster waiting to happen.

The solution: Use social media software that has variable permission levels. (I’m partial to my own product, HootSuite, but there are lots of options.) With this technology, junior employees can be granted draft-only access, for instance, while the ability to actually publish messages can be limited to select, senior employees. This goes a long way toward ensuring that all messages are vetted before seeing the light of day.

Install “Are you sure?” checks for sensitive accounts: Here’s a wild (and completely hypothetical) theory about what happened at US Airways. That obscene image—which had shown up in the company’s feed earlier in the day—was being shared internally among employees. Then, during a momentary lapse of concentration, someone accidentally pasted it from their clipboard onto the company’s Twitter feed and—without thinking twice—hit send.

Preventing that could have been as easy as setting up what’s known as a secure profile. Many social media management tools allow users to designate certain sensitive accounts as “secure.” Before any message can be sent, a basic “Are you sure?” prompt flashes across the screen. It’s not foolproof, but this additional step often encourages an extra glance, preventing unintended messages or images from leaking out.

Weed out offensive material with automatic filters: Remember the days when all kinds of nasty spam would end up in your email inbox: ads for Viagra, suspicious links, letters from Nigerian princes? The advent of modern spam filters pretty much put an end to that, leaving our inboxes relatively free of unwanted content.

Well, the same technology exists for social media—capable of weeding out pornography, malicious content, spam, etc.—though it isn’t nearly as widely used. Many social media management tools integrate with or include automatic filtering technology from firms like Nexgate. Companies can decide for themselves what kind of images, keywords, websites, etc. to filter out, and the offending content will be automatically culled from their social streams. Considering that the US Airways picture was originally featured on a German amateur porn site, a basic filter might well have picked it up, solving the problem before it started.

Track changes in message volume with analytics software: Nearly immediately after the obscene US Airways message was posted, it began attracting attention. Users throughout the Twitterverse retweeted it hundreds of times, while scandalized US Airways followers attempted to alert the airline. Yet, it was apparently nearly an hour before social media staff took notice and deleted the message.

Basic social media analytics software could have given US Airways a heads-up much sooner. Using apps like uberVU, for instance, alerts can be set up to monitor mentions of a company’s name and other keywords and issue warning emails when any unusual spikes in activity occur. This software won’t put the cat back in the bag, of course. (Once a Tweet is published, it can never truly be erased.) But it does enable businesses to get ahead of PR mishaps, address concerns, and prevent incidents from spiralling out of control.

Provide employees with social media basic training: US Airways has made clear that the tweet was accidental. Whoever shared the obscene link never meant for it to get out. What this tells me is that somewhere along the line, training broke down. Somebody didn’t entirely “get” Twitter—how to use it, what it was for, etc.—and the company paid for it.

This problem is far more common than is acknowledged. Among 2,100 companies surveyed by Harvard Business Review, a meagre 12% of those using social media feel they use it effectively. The number of social networks continues to expand and platforms are used in increasingly sophisticated ways by businesses. Yet we still expect employees to just intuitively “get it.” The reality is that some form of formal social media education is generally needed to bring employees up to speed. A number of online services have emerged to fill the gap, the largest being HootSuite University, which has seen 50,000 people enroll since it was started in 2011.

When social channels are being used to reach thousands or even millions of potential clients, it’s critical that employees know exactly what they’re doing. Someone at US Airways clearly didn’t, and as a consequence an image sourced from a hardcore porn site is now being flashed across the Internet with the company’s name right next to it—not exactly the kind of social media buzz they bargained for.

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