It would be a brave person who attempted, right now, to reassure Qantas CEO Alan Joyce with the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. On the strength of the Australian flag carrier’s turbulent last few months, Mr Joyce might beg volubly to differ.
An industrial dispute, prompted by plans to cut staff and outsource some of the airline’s operations overseas, was answered by management rather petulantly, grounding the entire Qantas fleet and stranding 70,000 passengers. Mr Joyce himself has also been the subject of considerable animosity, largely from people wondering whether he really needed that 71 per cent pay rise this year, and also whether they were ever going to get home.
Obviously, from a public relations point of view, the flying kangaroo required grooming. On Tuesday morning, Qantas’s official Twitter feed announced a competition. They solicited answers to the question “What is your dream luxury inflight experience?” – and, flirting boldly with calamity, urged “Be creative!”. They introduced a hashtag, #qantasluxury, to promote the viral growth of the competition and offered a prize of – wait for it – a first class gift pack, featuring an amenity kit and Qantas pyjamas. Only, it seems, a Qantas social media marketing expert could fail to predict what would happen next.
Twitter, like all technology, is what its users make it, and what Twitter’s users often make it is an online equivalent of a Roman colosseum, in which the victim of the hour – sometimes merely hapless, sometimes richly deserving – is ripped to twitching pieces for the amusement of jeering onlookers. Qantas, due to a combination of poor timing, blithe hubris and a desultory prize, was chased around the arena with unusually bare-fanged enthusiasm.
Representative definitions submitted by tweeters of a dream luxury inflight experience included, “Giving yourself a pay rise while grounding your whole airline and taking local jobs offshore”, “More than three minutes’ notice that the whole airline is on strike”, and, “Taking off”. The inevitable Downfall film parody, with Alan Joyce implanted in the body of a besieged, enraged Adolf Hitler, rapidly appeared on YouTube.
It is possible to scrape together some measure of sympathy for Qantas. Airlines are uniquely vulnerable to online monstering, due to their global recognition and the fact that their customers are generally bored, annoyed and stressed, or at least, by definition, wish they were somewhere else. In 2009, United Airlines suffered a dent in its share price when Canadian country singer Dave Carroll had a massive online hit with a song about the carrier’s mistreatment of his guitar.
Though Qantas’s embarrassment is self-inflicted, both stories prove the same point: that the best PR is to provide a competent, reliable service.