Online battle for the skies

The increasing influence of the web is forcing airlines to manage their reputations more carefully than ever before. Mary Cowlett looks at some of the steps they are taking.

Air force: airlines need to take charge of their reputations
Air force: airlines need to take charge of their reputations

The credit crunch, escalating fuel charges and the debate around carbon emissions are all key factors in the turbulence currently affecting the aviation industry.

The situation is being exacerbated by the increasing spread and influence of the internet. Where once airlines viewed the web as a commercial route for selling direct to customers, now the medium is biting back by serving as a platform for the spread of bad news.

Whatever the story, from flight delays, lost baggage and sloppy customer service, to spats with the unions, price increases or even misbehaving celebrities, cyberspace is packed with consumers keen to share their views and experiences with others. These conversations range across blogs such as TripAdvisor to forums and social networks including Dopplr (for business travellers), WAYN (for backpackers) and environmental offering Greenair Online.

Lewis Webb, account director at The Red Consultancy’s new media PR practice Shiny Red, says: ‘It’s not just the volume of discussions, it’s the influence of some of the commentators and the topics about which people are talking.’

In April, PRWeek asked Shiny Red to conduct a three-month study that involved monitoring online blogs, forums and news relating to some of the UK’s leading airlines, including British Airways, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet. The study – which examined price, delays and cancellations, airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead) and the environment – threw up a number of attention-grabbing stories (see timeline on previous page).

‘What’s particularly interesting is that the topic profiles for the two most talked about airlines show that the brands are mentioned very differently,’ says Webb. ‘For BA, during this period the buzz centred around Heathrow, particularly the opening of T5 and subsequent delays. For Ryanair, the buzz was heavily skewed towards price.’

What else is interesting is that BA’s ‘blog visibility’ (the number of blog postings) is far higher than any of its rivals. This raises a crucial question: as consumers increasingly place trust in sites such as flyertalk.com, how are the airlines monitoring and responding to what is being said?

Kaizo’s latest Advocacy Index, which measures the impact of online word-of- mouth for top brands and was published in July, found that some carriers are performing comparatively well – most notably Virgin Atlantic, which it ranked as the top airline overall.

However, the least recommended airline was no-frills carrier Ryanair, which warned in July it was heading for its first annual loss in 20 years.

Paul Charles, director of communications at Virgin Atlantic, says his firm receives about 4,500 blog postings each month. ‘We organise press trips for bloggers and online writers, send targeted emails and talk to them on the phone,’ he says.

As yet, the airline has resisted creating its own corporate blog. But it is in the process of reorganising its comms function to create a dedicated online and social media press officer role.

Similarly, the newly merged Thomson Fly and First Choice Airways – which will become Thomson Airways, the UK’s third largest carrier, next May – appointed Jane Sinclair to the newly created role of online communications manager in April.

‘At the moment we’re looking at getting all the monitoring tools in place, but give it another six months,’ says Sinclair, who adds that the firm is working with digital marketing company iCrossing.

But what happens when things go wrong? BA’s consumer PR manager Amanda Allan says: ‘Our aim is to ensure that the correct information is readily available.’ She points to the proactive online communications undertaken around the opening of T5 – including a dedicated microsite – and the information updates issued when chaos ensued. ‘Thanks to formal feedback, as well as blog comments and web forums, we now know that people who have flown through T5 enjoy the experience. This has led to us launching our “Terminal 5 is working” campaign.’

According to Kaizo’s index, this ongoing commitment to online dialogue could be one reason why, even though the online world may not have claimed BA as its favourite airline over the past six months, and despite the fact that more people are talking about it, they also did not consider it the worst.


Timeline

News stories from April to July 2008 that led to increased blog activity for the relevant airlines


3 May Bottom of the class
The Association of European Airlines Consumer Report for the first quarter of 2008 ranks BA as the worst-performing European carrier for punctuality and lost baggage.
BA blog visibility: 756 posts

16 May Biofuels and the rise of nationalistic environmentalism
Following Virgin Atlantic’s first biofuelled airline flight in February, environmentalists discuss the impact of biofuel production on food prices, asking what price ‘sustainable’ energy for the world’s poorest nations?
Virgin blog visibility: 52 posts

23 May Naomi Campbell boycotts British Airways
Having been arrested at Heathrow on 3 April and apparently banned from all BA flights, supermodel Naomi Campbell declares she will no longer use the airline. In late May, she is charged with assault.
BA blog visibility: 469 posts

31 May British Airways increases fuel surcharge
BA announces an increase in its fuel surcharges on all tickets to offset rising fuel charges, adding £60 to the price of long-haul return flights.
BA blog visibility: 480 posts

3 June Ryanair to ground 10 per cent of its fleet
Ryanair announces it is grounding up to 10 per cent of its planes this winter to combat soaring airport charges. CEO Michael O’Leary blames the ‘unjustified doubling in landing and handling charges’.
Ryanair blog visibility: 309 posts

22 June Naomi Campbell avoids jail, blames ‘racist’ British Airways
BA rejects Naomi Campbell’s claims of racism as the supermodel escapes jail, but is fined and given a 200-hour unpaid community service order for her air-rage outburst in April.
BA blog visibility: 471 posts

3 July British Airways buys L’Avion
BA buys French business-class carrier L’Avion for £54m to expand its new OpenSkies venture and increase the number of flights between France
and the US.
BA blog visibility: 491 posts

3 July EasyJet reviews IT processes
EasyJet reviews its IT-driven aircraft management, back office and customer-facing operations to tackle delays and cut fuel costs.
EasyJet blog visibility: 167 posts


Case Study: OpenSkies

BA announced its intention in January to launch OpenSkies, following last year’s liberalisation of aviation between the EU and the United States.

Promising daily direct services from cities such as Paris and Brussels to New York, the new venture – originally code-named Project Lauren – came on the back of much speculative chatter in cyberspace.

Unable to engage in any direct sales or marketing activity until it had received regulatory approval from the US Department of Transportation, the airline launched its own blog.

Chris Vukelich, BA’s vice-president of distribution and e-commerce, says:  ‘We decided to create a focal point for the online conversations that were taking place anyway, which we used over five months to talk about our approach, the physical environment on the planes and even the food and in-flight entertainment.’

The blog ran alongside more traditional PR announcements, but Vukelich says it was a good way to talk to consumers and get feedback on their expectations. ‘It also meant we could discuss things that traditional media would never pick up, such as the hiring profile of our cabin staff,’ he says.

He admits that using a mouthpiece over which the carrier had only limited control was a risky tactic.

But he says an overwhelming advantage was that when US government approval finally came through – just 28 days before the first flight – the airline had a powerful platform from which to launch its
e-commerce activities.

‘Because of our existing RSS feed, we had a ready-made pipeline, which also helped us climb up the rankings in Google’s natural search results really quickly.’

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