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U.S. Airways’ baffling tweet begs an explanation

U.S. Airways’ offensive tweet Monday is not the first time a social media post has gone wrong for a brand.


Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

Has the U.S. Airways Twitter account been hacked, or has a digital staffer gone rogue?

On Monday, the airline replied on Twitter to a customer who had complained about her flight from Charlotte, N.C. to Portland, Ore. Inexplicably, the official corporate account tweeted a vulgar picture of a nude woman doing something inappropriate with a model of an airplane.

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The message said, "We welcome feedback, Elle. If your travel is complete, you can detail it here for review and follow-up" with a link to the photo.

Needless to say, this response had nothing to do with the customer's complaints about the flight being late, the service on board, or the condition of the plane.

U.S. Airways has since deleted the message and tweeted an apology for the "inappropriate image," adding that the company is investigating the incident. They also sent a more professionally-worded response to the customer who complained.

Corporate social media accounts can be managed by employees of the company, or by their advertising agencies (or specialized digitally-focused agencies.) These "community managers" usually craft messages based on a pre-approved calendar of content, and can also send out messages spontaneously to respond to customer complaints or to take part in conversations as they happen. (For more on how one brand – Oreo – handles that process, see here.)

Unless the account was hacked by someone wanting to play a joke on U.S. Airways by creating a major PR mess, it is likely that a community manager will be fired over the incident.

It is not the first time a social media post has gone wrong for a brand. In 2012, Belvedere vodka posted an image on Facebook and Twitter that made light of sexual assault. The brand apologized but never explained how it happened.

In response to the Boston Marathon bombings last year, food website Epicurious sent out baffling messages: "In honour of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole-grain cranberry scones!" and "Boston, our hearts are with you. Here's a bowl of breakfast energy we could all use today."

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Last year, employees at music retailer HMV in the UK decided to live-tweet the firing of more than 60 employees. That included the moment when the chain's director of marketing (who still had a job) asking, "How do I shut down Twitter?"

Examples abound.

U.S. Airways may choose to end this latest mishap with its apology, and not to explain how the tweet was sent. That would be a mistake. Too often, companies make a mess on social media and don't bother to explain themselves, reasoning that to do so might draw more attention to their blunder. But they may want to reconsider that strategy.

Companies' ubiquitous presence on digital media where people gravitate to find news or check in on their friends – services such as Facebook and Twitter – have induced fatigue among consumers who are barraged daily by brands attempting to be their friends.

In this digital advertising environment of canned jokes, feigned friendship, and duck-and-cover crisis management, a touch of transparency would be a welcome change.

And after you've responded to a customer complaint with pornography, it's called for.

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