This week, US Airways made headlines for sharing a pornographic photo on its Twitter account. The mistake was so terrible, The Wire dubbed it the All-Time First Place Victor in Worst Corporate Social Media #Brand Strategy. But in the aftermath, we see that US Airways handled this reputation disaster incident wisely, and there are lessons to be learned from both their mistake and their recovery.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR US AIRWAYS

It goes without saying that this mistake was a big one. The tweet was deleted, and apologies were issued, but the lewd photo was live on the airline’s Twitter page for an hour. In Internet time, that we know that an hour might as well be a month. Twitter users had a field day retweeting the image and cracking jokes.

Observant Boston.com editor Hilary Sargent pointed out that the tweet made US Airlines the most talked about airline in the world, beating out even Malaysia Airlines.

Well, Malaysia Airlines is no longer the worlds most talked about airline. So there’s that.

— Hilary Sargent (@lilsarg) April 14, 2014

 

What happened, exactly? US Airways/American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller explains that the tweet was “an honest mistake.” A Twitter user shared the image on its Twitter feed, which an employee flagged for removal. But somehow, while flagging the image, the link ended up copied and accidentally placed in US Airways’ now-famous reply to a different Twitter user.

HOW US AIRWAYS BOUNCED BACK — AND BUILT A STRONGER REPUTATION

This incident is what brand managers have nightmares about. It reflects poorly on the airline’s communications staff and makes the entire organization look disorganized and offensive. But now, just a few days after US Airways’ virtual plane crash, the airline is being applauded for its response. How did they do it?

US Airways made a smart human resources move. There were plenty of jokes that the social media staffer behind the pornographic tweet would be fired immediately. Rather, US Airways announced that no one would be fired. After all, the airline said that it was an honest mistake.

Showing mercy to their social media staff has earned US Airways the admiration of many. US News applauded the airline, explaining that this is an example of corporate social media becoming more mature. Social media powerhouse Mashable agrees, noting that US Airways made the right call. It says a lot that US Airways will stand behind their employees, even when faced with such an incredibly embarrassing moment for the company.

WHAT US AIRWAYS COULD HAVE DONE BETTER

Mashable’s analysis notes that US Airways uses proprietary social media software. This software allows the airline to swiftly respond to customer issues online, but it also allowed the airline’s staffer to make an embarrassing mistake. US Airlines should consider how the incident was allowed to happen, and how their software might be updated to prevent similar problems in the future.

Posting the offensive photo was certainly an honest mistake, but the bigger mistake was allowing the tweet to remain active on Twitter for an hour. With US Airlines’ advanced social media software, we have a hard time understanding how a single tweet that attracted so many retweets, replies, and traffic could go ignored for so long by the company. US Airlines should do a better job monitoring engagement on Twitter. Though it was negative attention this time, next time they might miss out on a highly engaging tweet that has gone viral for positive reasons.

HOW BRANDS CAN RECOVER FROM REPUTATION MISTAKES

As we’ve seen from US Airways this week, honest mistakes can happen, and they can threaten the reputation of both brands and individuals. What’s the best way to recover?

  • Deal with mistakes swiftly. With today’s 24 hour news cycle and Internet rumor mill, PR gaffes can quickly spin out of control. Brands would be smart to monitor their reputation around the clock and on a constant basis to catch reputation-busting incidents right as they happen. It’s always easier to get in front of the story than to catch up with the rest of the world later.
  • Apologize, right away. If you’ve genuinely made a mistake, own it. Don’t wait, don’t point fingers. When the world is watching, they’re looking for humility and an apology.
  • Develop a strong reputation. The best PR disaster recovery happens long before incidents have a chance to start. Brands with a long history of professionalism and a strong reputation are more likely to be trusted, and ultimately forgiven in the face of negative PR incidents.

HOW BRANDS CAN PREVENT REPUTATION DISASTERS

It’s always easier (and less gut-wrenching) to simply avoid PR disasters rather than scramble to fix them. It may not be possible to stop every disaster or honest mistake before it starts, but brands can avoid reputation disasters as much as possible:

  • Create a system of checks and balances. Mistakes like US Airways’ inappropriate photo can be easily stopped with peer editing. Though it may slow down response times, asking others to review Tweets before sending them out can help weed out offensive photos, off color remarks, and other social media mistakes that have landed brands in hot water.
  • Make sure that staff understands the dos and don’ts of social media. Make sure that your social media staff are all on the same page when it comes to your brand message. You should build a social media policy, and give team members training and an understanding of what is and is not appropriate.
  • Separate work and personal devices. Though this would not have prevented US Airways’ tweet, brands would be smart to require that social media staff not tweet from any devices (computers, mobile phones) that they also use for personal accounts. Why? We’ve seen far too many staffers tweet personal thoughts, photos, and links (sometimes embarrassing ones) on brand accounts, when they were clearly meant to be shared on a personal one.

Mistakes happen even to the best brands. Incidents like the US Airways tweet can hurt brand reputation, but only if they’re not handled correctly. Protect your reputation and develop a strong brand identity by preventing — and learning how to respond to — major pr mistakes.

Photo of Joseph Torrillo
About the Author

Born and proudly raised in Syracuse, NY, Joseph joined the team in 2008 as the Director of Reputation Management after earning his B.S. in Public Policy. He is now the Vice President of the department.

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