The way an airline and its competitors used social media following a tragedy provides an outline for other industries on ways to respond to a crisis, according to a new study out of the University of Connecticut.
The March 2015 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 spurred significant changes in social media strategy across the airline industry, says UConn’s Shu He in the study Social Media Strategies in Product-Harm Crises in the journal Information Systems Research.
He and her colleagues studied 56 major airlines, and their social media strategies, three months before and after the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. The airline industry is one of the leading users of social media, so its experiences are somewhat more sophisticated than other industries and have strong ramifications for other business practices, He said.
“In research, we often talk about the offensive approach – using social media to entice consumers to try a product or take advantage of a service,’’ said He, assistant professor of Operations and Information Management in the School of Business. “But this paper also combines the second value of social media, the defensive strategies which address customer concerns quickly and assist in retaining them.’’
Germanwings Flight 9525 was a low-cost, international passenger flight that departed from Barcelona, Spain, and was en route to Dusseldorf, Germany on March 24, 2015. The aircraft – owned by parent company Lufthansa – crashed north of Nice in the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers and crew.
It was Germanwings’ first fatal crash in its 18-year history and ultimately investigators found the crash was deliberately planned by the co-pilot, who had previously been treated for suicidal tendencies.
He and co-authors Huaxia Rui, of the University of Rochester, and Andrew B. Whinston, of the University of Texas at Austin, found that Germanwings’ competitors decreased their “offensive’’ approach to social media by an average of 13 to 19 percent during the three months following the crash, but they increased their “defensive’’ social presence by 3 to 9 percent.
Offensive posts are messages such as “This #LaborDay, reward yourself with savings on your next #vacation! Save now.” Examples of defensive posts include “Taking care of our customers is very important to us. How can we help?”
Measured by growth in followers for the company in crisis, in both absolute numbers and percentage change, the average effect of defensive marketing efforts increased after the crash event, says He, which seemed to justify the adjustment of airlines’ social media strategy.
Unlike traditional marketing channels, social media adjustments can be implemented in real time. For managers, social media offers an extremely flexible way to counter negative spillover to retain existing customers and attract potential customers, write the researchers.
“The take-away is that when a competitive company experiences a crisis, other companies should use social media to both reduce the negative spillover effect and to improve their competitive advantage,’’ she said.
The company with the crisis should probably spend even more resources on defensive marketing, knowing that competitors would exploit the vulnerability and ramp up their offensive marketing. The opposite is true: competitors need to consider the strategic responses of the company in crisis while forming their strategy, says He. One firm’s catastrophe can be a competitive advantage for another.
The findings extend far beyond the airline industry.
Crises are common. In 2016 alone, 339 new recalls were reported by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, ranging from food to toys to motor vehicles.