Study: Airlines are weathering social media turbulence just fine

Violent ejections, technology glitches, and scuffles aboard planes don't fly on social media, but a new study suggests online furor has a limited impact.

A United plane at a Chicago airport. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
A United plane at a Chicago airport. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

NEW YORK: Despite significant turbulence on social media, a new report has indicated that the offline reputations of major airlines are stable.

The three largest airlines in the U.S., Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines, each took reputational hits on social media during the period examined, November 2016 to June 2017. However, none dismantled the reputations the carriers built up with five key stakeholder groups: the general public, customers, media, employees, and distributors.

The study, which used Talkwalker, concluded that the furor on social media "demands an overhaul of reputation management practices and changes in organization structures," while keeping in mind that "reputation is a multidimensional entity that evolves gradually."

"Online chatter does not abruptly alter the overall perceptions of stakeholders," the study concluded. "Thus, reputation managers and executives must diligently monitor the online activity related to their brand, while also taking a long-term view of reputation building — that is predominantly driven by offline activities."

Salman Khan, a researcher at Toulouse Business School, authored the study with Professor Jacques Digout.

"It is very obvious that controversies shake up the volatile online reputations," Khan said via email. "But in the offline context, reputations are very stable. One or two incidents don’t change the perception of investors, media, distributors, and employees."

The study culled historical data from each brand’s social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram from November 2016 to June 2017. It also relied on 218 survey responses.

The report also found that while the airline industry is often a target of scorn and scrutiny, each carrier his own strengths.

Delta excelled in service quality, innovation, and company performance, giving it a reputational edge with four stakeholder audiences: the general public, customers, media, and distributors. It also had a strong reputation for online customer service, social media activity, its website, and online brand experience, Khan said.

United received the highest marks for workplace quality, giving it the best reputation among employees. American received plaudits for governance and citizenship, but did not receive the highest score in any of the stakeholder audiences.

"Airlines may have a bad reputation for quality," Khan said. "But as long as the airlines keep making money, generating jobs, and get us from one point to another (in one piece), most of the stakeholders will be happy. The public will talk. Perhaps more loudly in the future. But it really won't matter much, until we have an alternate means of travel."

Despite the widely publicized April incident in which Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from a United flight from Chicago to Louisville in early April, United’s bottom line did not suffer in the second quarter. The carrier beat analysts’ expectations for both revenue and profit in Q2, however, its shares fell on Wednesday due to a weak third-quarter forecast.

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