The current economic climate has required chief executives and senior management within businesses to take on more responsibilities and get involved in the daily running of a company, in and out of the boardroom. Even communicating directly with customers and clients, which has traditionally been the duty of the PR and marketing department, is now often undertaken by senior leaders on social media networks.
However, with the unprecedented growth in digital media, online reputation management has become a vital part of any brands’ long term PR strategy. As executives continue to initiate dialogue with customers, it is important to question if direct and unmanned interaction between clients and company top bosses improves brand transparency or has the potential to backfire on the brand all together?
Let’s look at two examples in recent news:
Low cost carrier Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary, (for some) a disliked personality for a disliked brand took to micro-blogging site Twitter on Monday for a Q&A session with the public. It was an attempt to rectify the carrier’s reputation for poor customer service and address (as O’Leary admitted in a stakeholders meeting last month) an ‘image problem’.
By no means however was this a formal CEO-versus-disgruntled-customers exchange. O’Leary had on a green hat and leprechaun beard with his thumbs up, set against a backdrop of bikini clad women standing in front of a plane. His answers were cheeky, flirty and even offensive. For example, one questioner alluding to the book The Tipping Point, asked him: ‘Would you agree you’ve reached the point where customers no longer trust you?’
O’Leary responded: ‘Sorry, can’t read, can barely write. 81m customers would disagree with you.’
Other questions O’Leary answered with similar cool brazenness included: ‘how is it appropriate for an airline CEO to be a sexist pig?’ and ‘what type of people do you enjoy mistreating most? I’m guessing elderly and disabled?’ followed by ‘is it company policy for your staff to be rude and unhelpful as possible?’
O’Leary’s riposte can be well summed up with his tweet: ‘call me genius, Jesus, Superman, or odious little s**t, whatever takes your fancy as long as you fly Ryanair!’
Did it work for Ryanair? It may have pushed the airline further down the customer satisfaction league, but if Twitter reactions are to go by, the exercise has been successful in fuelling more buzz and (bad) publicity for the brand than perhaps a traditional marketing campaign would.
Here are a few examples of how the public and media responded to O’Leary’s hashtagged ‘#GrillMOL’ session:
— Entrepreneur (@EntMagazine) October 21, 2013
— Jonathan Haynes (@JonathanHaynes) October 21, 2013
— NiallHarbison (@NiallHarbison) October 21, 2013
For British Gas, a similar Q&A session that took place last week was termed by media as a ‘social media car crash.’ British Gas director Bert Pijls was slammed when the company engaged the public in a Q&A session the very day it announced a 9.2% price hike. According to BBC, ‘hashtag #AskBG ended up crowd-sourcing a riot of opinion that included black humour and rage.’
British Gas “incredibly naive” to hold Twitter Q&A on price hike day | PR Week http://t.co/aZ9lgipLW0 < not a good plan
— Neville Hobson (@jangles) October 19, 2013
British Gas hit by backlash over 10% price hike http://t.co/ZwtkK8CeBA
— Guardian news (@guardiannews) October 17, 2013
#AskBG When someone first suggested this idea, what did you expect from it? Were you honestly not aware of the resentment you’ve engendered?
— Michael Moran (@TheMichaelMoran) October 17, 2013
What Ryanair and British Gas did was right in being open to the public and initiating a dialogue with unhappy customers, but the reaction from followers were beyond their control. It is perhaps for the sheer limitlessness scope that the internet presents and the indefinite response a simple tweet can generate that still makes senior management skeptical about being the social media voice. According to a study by CEO.com, 70% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence whatsoever on any major social media channels, while the remaining that do, are mostly present on professional networking site LinkedIn.
It will be interesting to hear what you think is the right approach for senior executives using social media to communicate to the public. Is not having social media presence in this age of connectivity better than engaging the public in discussion with the brand? Is there a fine balance between the two? Tell us what you think.