By TJ Kiely

July 4th, 2017

For brands, social media means business. And, at times, the competition – and the conversation – between brands on social media can be ruthless.

Brands today must be vigilant, because according to Richard Hillgrove, owner of Hillgrove PR, “people forget that business is war and the most competitive medium right now is social media.” Given that reputations, as well as stock prices, are on the line, some brands have demonstrated that they are not above a little mudslinging when the opportunity presents itself.

From Pepsi to Dove, 2017 has been a scandalous year for big brands, but none has garnered more attention than the United Airlines social media crisis. Millions watched the viral video of a bloodied passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight – including many of the company’s competitors. And, unfortunately for the airline, a select group of rival airlines viewed the crisis as an opportunity to promote their customer service, while simultaneously being able to take a jab at a competitor.

Through social listening, United Airlines’ competitors were able to follow the news around the story and capitalize on the crisis. The fallout from this particular social media crisis highlights the importance of social listening and social listening tools for brands in the digital age. Let’s take a look at how several of United Airlines’ competitors reacted to the situation in order to determine whether or not their involvement was worth the risk.

Viral competitor responses:
Adopting a variation of United Airlines’ tagline, “Fly the Friendly Skies,” Dubai-based Emirates posted a video on Twitter with a message that read, “Fly the Friendly Skies…THIS TIME FOR REAL.” The video has been retweeted more than 10,000 times.

Spirit and Royal Jordanian were two other competitors that took to social media to post their own witty parodies of United Airlines’ motto as #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos began trending. However, no competitor’s response received as much traction as the ones submitted by the general public.

A meme surfaced online that read, “Southwest: We beat the competition. Not you.”

Although a spokesperson from Southwest Airlines denied any connection to the meme, the Twitterverse didn’t get the message. Numerous social media users continued to applaud Southwest Airlines for the response.

Southwest Airlines’ employees even began to adopt the meme’s message. On one particular flight, the announcer greeted passengers by saying, “Welcome to Southwest, where we beat our competitors…not our customers.” The popularity of the meme’s message demonstrates how quickly a message can spread on social media.

Had United Airlines utilized a tool that measured sentiment on social media, like Falcon’s Listen, then maybe the airline could have prevented the situation from escalating after its initial response.

Pros and cons:
Clearly a few of United Airlines’ competitors were able to gain a significant amount of exposure from the scandal, but at what expense?

The relationship between United Airlines and Middle Eastern carriers has not always been an amicable one, which is why these competitors may not have been afraid of capitalizing on the crisis, but their choice to comment on the situation likely only added pressure to an already strained relationship.

Not all social media users were supportive of the jabs that Royal Jordanian and Emirates were taking at United Airlines, and, in some cases, their responses actually backfired with customers.

Beyond appearing distasteful, these competitor responses were also a bit risky. Afterall, anyone of United Airlines’ competitors could be the next one the next company on the social media chopping block for mishandling a commonplace overbooking situation. This is likely why the majority of United Airlines’ competitors chose to fly right past the situation. So, should a company spend time preparing for a competitor’s social media crisis?

Preparing for a social media crisis:
Well, the truth is that nobody knows when the next social media crisis will arise, which is why companies should not worry too much about preparing for a competitor’s social media crisis – and should be more concerned about preparing for how to handle their own social media crisis.

Although a social media crisis may present a real opportunity for competitors from both a financial and reputational perspective, as evident by the 1.1% drop in United Airlines’ stock price preceding the incident, it does not mean a competitor should dedicate resources to the situation. Hopefully, all of United Airlines’ competitors, regardless of whether or not they chose to engage in the conversation around the scandal, saw the overbooking fiasco as a signal to start preparing for how to handle similar situations.

By having a solid social media crisis management strategy in place, a company can actually learn to turn a crisis situation into a branding opportunity that showcases the company’s empathy and customer service response time. Part of that strategy involves monitoring social media for keywords, hashtags and public sentiment to help alert customer service and inform any external marketing communications.

To find out how to identify, manage and minimize a social media crisis, download Falcon.io’s free Social Media Crisis Handbook. The guide covers the social media communication strategies that any brand can use in order to avoid going viral for the wrong reasons.

If your competitor was facing a social media crisis, would you take advantage of the situation with a witty meme? Tweet us your answer at @FalconIO.

How to Avoid a Social Media Crisis.

Here’s how to implement a crisis plan that works for you.

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