Qantas has been criticised for its mechanical, impersonal social media response to the grounding of its fleet and the ensuing customer chaos.
The announcement sparked a torrent of posts on Twitter, with independent social media analyst Thomas Tudehope noting that, at its peak, "Alan Joyce", "Qantas" and "Anthony Albanese" were all trending worldwide - indicating in excess of a thousand tweets per minute.
"This is particularly remarkable given that Australia only has an estimated 2 million Twitter accounts compared to a global audience pushing towards 250 million accounts," Tudehope said.
But Qantas has been criticised for its corporate, wooden approach to communicating with customers online over the weekend. It has changed tack slightly today following the critcism.
"From 8pm AEDT on 31/10 Qantas will lock out all employees who will be covered by the new ALAEA, TWU and AIPA agreements," read the wooden Qantas tweet announcing the debacle.
Subsequent posts appeared to lack empathy. "Qantas will reimburse the difference between the cost of the new ticket (in same cabin of travel) and value of the refunded Qantas ticket," read another tweet.
Several Twitter accounts have sprung up lampooning Qantas and its CEO, Alan Joyce, including @AlanJoyceCEO and @Qantas_VH_OQA. However, Steve Purvinas, of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineer's Association, is also copping it with a parody Twitter account in his name: @Steve_ALAEA.
"I'd completely agree that the Qantas Twitter account sounds like it's read from a script and is very mechanical," said an executive with a leading digital marketing agency who spoke anonymously because Qantas has its business out for pitch at the moment.
"It's a shame because Qantas has some very good people who would be great at talking to their customers on Twitter, but they've been gagged by senior Qantas people who don't understand how to make the best use of Twitter yet."
Social media monitoring firm SR7 said Virgin swooped in with a more personal approach that proved very effective, and garnered the competing airline near universal praise on its Facebook page.
James Griffin, partner with SR7, said the battle for the hearts, minds and dollars of Australian travelers was up for grabs and being played out via social media.
"Unfortunately due to the huge volume of tweets directed at Qantas yesterday it appears as though they couldn't respond in a personable tone to each one, diluting the usual 'one on one' nature of the social media conversation and in turn copping criticism for being mechanical and heartless," he said.
However, Griffin said the crisis would have some time more to play out and the public hadn't firmed up on who to blame: Qantas or the unions.
"Comments on the official Qantas Facebook Page are mixed. Three keys themes are people praising the actions of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, expressing anger at the grounding of the fleet and people seeking further information about their flights," said Griffin.
Virgin boss Richard Branson joined the conversation on Twitter to praise his staff for being quick to take advantage of the issue.
"Congrats everybody at @VirginAustralia and @VirginAtlantic for doing a great job in getting as many Qantas passengers on their way as possible," Branson tweeted.
A London escort is also taking advantage of the situation, with @HeathrowEscort offering her services via Twitter to any Qantas customers stranded in Heathrow Airport.
Danny Bishop, creative director of IMG Sports Technology Group, which does social media work for sports clients, said that over the weekend, when customers were most concerned, Qantas stopped addressing customers directly and adopted a more ineffective, one-way communication method.
"They moved from a dialogue back to a monologue," said Bishop.
There was some confusion as to where to look for the latest Qantas updates as the airline has three twitter accounts - @QantasAirways, @QantasMedia and @QFcustomercare. Qantas used the @QantasAirways account for most of its updates - increasing its followers to that account by 2654 yesterday - but the other two accounts were dormant until later yesterday.
Tudehope said the conversation initially focused on the announcement itself and was soon followed by the chaos that it would create.
Then people began venting about their own travel difficulties and directed their anger towards Joyce. A Facebook page with over 5500 likes calls for Joyce to be locked out, not Qantas workers.
American burlesque star Dita Von Teese even weighed in on Twitter: "Come on #Qantas, get it together! How rude!!!!"
While many criticised Qantas over the way it handled its social media response, Tudehope said he believed Qantas was beating unions in the online battle.
He said Qantas' Facebook page had in excess of 100,000 fans and its Twitter accounts had over 75,000 followers, contrasting this with the limited presence of the Transport Workers Union with its 250 Twitter followers.
"I think Qantas were pretty effective online," said Tudehope.
"Considering the volume of tweets it would have been very hard for them to reply personally to all those tweeting them. Moreover, if they were to reply it would set a precedent whereby they would have to reply to a majority of queries rather than selecting ones."
Simon Hunter, founder of the digital consultancy Dotpoint, agreed that Qantas' tweets had been "very corporate" but in such a crisis the airline probably saw this as a safe tactic.
"With the amount of criticism flying around yesterday, a casual quip could have blown up in their faces, so in this instance towing the corporate line, even if it did look a little impersonal, was probably the right thing to do," he said.
"On the other hand, Virgin was much more casual with its tweets. At one point it even made quite a bad mistake asking customers not to call them. Thankfully, they quickly corrected themselves with a cheeky tweet saying they meant that in the 'nicest possible way'."
The tweet referred to above, posted by @VirginAustralia, said: "If you don't need to call us right now, it would be appreciated if you didn't. The team is working hard to do what we can as soon as we can!"
Both Tudehope and Hunter said that, given the circumstances, it was much easier for Virgin to take an informal approach.
"No one was going to criticise them for stepping in and saving the day," said Hunter.
Tudehope said it was easy for Virgin to be more personal as they were offering a solution.
"Sure, Qantas could have been more personal but their frame of mind would have been not to escalate the problem further," he said.
"This probably explains why they wanted to keep their updates short and less frequent."
But Tudehope said an enhanced customer service approach using Twitter or Facebook could have saved customers calling up on the phone and in turn, would have saved the airline money.
- Sydney Morning Herald