How not to use Twitter: lessons from Qantas and Westpac

axel-brunsThe likes of Qantas have a long way to go before getting to grips with social media, argues Axel Bruns.

For major brands, the road to social media infamy is paved with what seemed like good ideas at the time.

Just this week, Qantas succeeded in having Twitter suspend the well-known spoof account, @QantasPR, claiming users would mistake it for the real thing.  

It is the second time its approach to Twitter has hit turbulence. A few months ago, Qantas decided to run a Twitter competition inviting people to share their fantasies of a luxury holiday. Unfortunately for them, the competition hashtag, #qantasluxury, became a lightning-rod for complaints about poor service, unreliable connections, and management’s do-or-die strategy to move major operations offshore.

Not to be outdone, McDonald’s set up its own promo hashtag, #McDstories, asking its customers to share their fondest memories of visiting the fast-food chain. Little did they expect, apparently, the litany of complaints about dodgy service, poor food, and serious health problems which eventuated.

It’s difficult to understand how the well-paid PR advisors behind such disasters could not have seen them coming. Did Qantas, for example, really expect that the negative press resulting from the months of its bitter and belligerent fight against its own workforce, and from its declared intention to move as much as possible of the airline to Asia, would not lead to a significant public backlash?

Perhaps these people really do buy their own PR hype – perhaps they truly, honestly believe that Coca Cola indeed “is it”, that McDonald’s diners are actually “lovin’ it”, that Qantas will always remain the “Spirit of Australia”, wherever it may be based. If so, the social media response may serve as a useful reality check: customers aren’t the sheep they may appear to be.

The problem for the flacks is that conventional PR has long focussed on a broadcast mode of message dissemination: they were able to repeat their messages unchallenged, ad infinitum, in print, on radio and TV, through outdoor advertising. However quickly we’d all reach for our remotes to mute the commercials, enough of them would seep through to gradually create a certain brand image.

In a social media environment, though, brands are conversations (to echo the Cluetrain Manifesto) – it’s no longer possible just to shout at customers, because now they can answer back, and are sometimes able to do so at a volume which well surpasses that of the original message itself. Many Twitter users would have found out about the #qantasluxury or #McDstories campaigns not because of the companies’ own promotional efforts, but only because of the negative publicity they resulted in.

Users of Westpac's Facebook page allege some negative comments were deleted. Click to enlarge

And it’s how these brands respond to such negative publicity that reflects most clearly on their corporate integrity. When Westpac lifted its interest rates the other day, out of step with the Reserve Bank of Australia, this resulted in a fair number of negative, sometimes angry, comments on its official Facebook page. The bank’s initial response was simply to delete a number of them – the digital equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears, going “La-la-la, I can’t hear you.”

(A Westpac spokesman said that the comments which were deleted had been “racist and offensive” and contravened its social media policies, and pointed to substantial number of negative comments which remain on its Facebook page. Other users did report that even more benign comments were removed, however.)

Choosing Twitter as the platform for their promo activities, McDonald’s and Qantas didn’t have access to similar forms of censorship; once unleashed, there was nothing they could do to stop the barrage of criticism.

However much Qantas might dislike being the butt of @QantasPR’s jokes, such attempts at censorship will achieve precisely nothing, other than to further tarnish the company’s image.

New Qantas spoof Twitter accounts have sprung up.

Nicely illustrating what’s called the “Streisand effect” of attempting to suppress the unsuppressable, new accounts @Qantas_PR and @QantasPRPR have already popped up in place of the suspended one (not to mention @AlanJoyceCEO, @Alan_Joyce_CEO, and @AlanJoyceNot – all fakes, too). Given the real Qantas PR’s track record, this may turn into an interesting cat-and-mouse chase – but while entertaining to onlookers, none of it will benefit the brand.

The simple lesson which PR managers must learn is this: out there in the real world, there are people who don’t much like your brand – who’ll even make fun of it at times. Get used to it. You can’t make them go away; you can’t even shout louder then them any more. You certainly can’t censor what they have to say; to do so will only reinforce the negative perceptions of your brand that people already have.

Westpac, Qantas, all of you: rather than wishing away your detractors, or wasting your time with silly promos, you might like to spend some time considering why so many people criticise you, own up to your problems, and address them. Your best strategy is to surprise your critics by taking them seriously – time for a little honesty and maturity in engaging with your customers.


  1. jean cave
    15 Feb 12
    9:43 pm

  2. Who knows how many potential Qantas customers have and do twitter?

  3. Karalee
    15 Feb 12
    10:58 pm

  4. Axel, not to disagree with your main point, however let’s clarify; you’re actually talking about advertisers and marketers. Marketers are the discipline used to one-way communication and broadcast messages through channels such as TV, print and outdoor advertising.

    PR/Communications/Flacks is the discipline (much like customer service which is why they work so closely, so often) that engages in two-way communication. It’s not an area that works in ‘broadcasting messages’, the opposite in fact. Responses, conversations, feedback and intelligence are a PR’s best friend, and any Communicator that is using a channel as a broadcast mechanism is not doing their job. Simple. They may as well earn their keep as a copywriter.

    Perhaps enough reason why social media and digital conversation should sit with multiple touch points in an org/agency driven by PR, and not with a marketer?

    *typed by monkeys on my iPhone, please excuse typos, crimes against grammar, etc

  5. Allison Lee
    16 Feb 12
    9:53 am

  6. Kara Lee, couldn’t agree more about PR leading social media. Brands that employ Twitter and Facebook have to be ready for dialogue.

    When the s**t hits the facebook wall, companies need to employ issues management techniques to ensure that those posting are heard, acknowledged and the issue resolved quickly and appropriately. That discipline has always been the domain of PR, and why PR needs to lead social media.

  7. rob
    16 Feb 12
    10:42 am

  8. the elephant in the room for me is why do corporates feel the need to dive into social media in the first place? Let’s face it, most corporates are considered capitalist machines that exist just to suck money from us…..having a facebook page or twitter account doesn’t have a hope in hell of changing that view.

    social media is the domain of individuals who talk to each other, take the piss, have a crack at each other etc. etc. Corporates are not geared for that kind of “conversation”, so why bother trying? their ham-fisted efforts inevitably backfire as they lack authenticity and integrity, which makes them an easy target.

    it’s so obvious and try-hard, and the resources wasted on this self-flaggelation that inevitably creates negative noise could be better invested elsewhere.

    for me we’ve still yet to answer the question that hangs heavy – do most consumers want to have conversations with most corporates? I don’t think that’s been adequately answered yet, in spite of all the industry-generated hype to the contrary.

    i’d suggest that corporates at the very least do some basic interrogation of the value of social media based on their category and general perceptions in the community – banks for one are asking for trouble in this environment.

  9. Rushdie
    16 Feb 12
    12:29 pm

  10. Spot on Rob. Social media has always been about sticking it to the man. Why the hell would corporates even go there unless they truly believe they are a benevolent –but misunderstood force? And that’s where Axel (wish I had that name) makes a salient point.They believe their own hype. I’ve worked on many of the big corporate brands here, including Coke and I can tell you from experience that the people there truly believe they are, or can become,a movement benefiting all mankind. Which is what social media is – and Coke isn’t. What it is, is probably the worst offender in the greatest epidemic of obesity in our children the world has known. And that’s why they’re so attracted to it.

  11. PeteyPie
    16 Feb 12
    12:31 pm

  12. A perfect example of why communications professionals should be in charge of social media, not marketers or content producers

  13. Bernie
    16 Feb 12
    4:00 pm

  14. I definitely think corporates can use social media to communicate to customers. In fact, Telstra is so good at it that I use Twitter first to communicate w/ them. They answer within minutes (much quicker than on the phone or standing in line in a store) and if they think I need to speak to someone (about the VERY BAD service in Canberra), they suggest the 24/7 live chat on Facebook. Love it. Well done Telstra. The other company that is nearly getting there is Virgin. When I told them on Twitter to learn from Telstra, they were very quick to find out why I was negative. They apologised for not answering my question-related tweets and gave me the info. Obviously these companies are backing up their social media efforts w/ STAFF. Any company can play in the space, but only if they resource it properly. It’s obvious who does and who doesn’t. It doesn’t take well-paid PR staff either – just people w/ good customer service skills who can do what they say over the phone to the online world (with a PR strategy for issues/rep management). Not that hard!

  15. belinda
    16 Feb 12
    4:09 pm

  16. Social media is critical for brands to be involved in. Despite people commenting that brands should not get involved, it’s quite the opposite. Social media is about keeping a brand front of mind, reminding customers of your offering and engaging them in the most positive ways possible. Social also acts as customer service for some companies and lets face it, its easier to get service from some brands on their twitter pages than on the telephone.

    If a brand is not on social media think about all of the feedback and insight from customers they are missing. It’s a critical part of our lives these days and brands need to get involved if they are to remain competitive. Rolling with the punches that the public give in this new “I have a keyboard therefore I AM” type environment is just the way social media coordinators and community managers need to face it.

    There are also a large number of social media trolls around who spend their time finding ways to act like fools on brand pages. Let’s not forget that.

    I think that being honest and quirky in a social media environment leads to more “brand like” if done in the right way.

  17. rob
    16 Feb 12
    4:52 pm

  18. @Bernie I don’t disagree with the use of social media tools as a CUSTOMER SERVICE channel (driven by customers needs), but this is not what we tend to be discussing here. It’s the lame use of said channels for outbound MARKETING (based on corporate needs) that I find useless…….

    there is a big difference using social media to LISTEN, not TALK. notice that it’s the tendency to do the latter that gets most corporates into trouble?

    of course if you just use these channels to service existing customers or new enquiries, it’s likely that responsibility will live outside the marketing department, and I for one would like to see this occur. It belongs in the customer contact/operations team in my opinion.

    @Belinda I’m concerned that people like you with the generic view that “social media is about keeping a brand front of mind” blah blah blah continue to push this barrow with no filter for industry/category-relevance, brand-relevance, interest/involvement levels of consumers, demand generation vs retention, customer service vs another way to push our crap down people’s throats whether they like it or not etc. etc.

    It’s the use of terms like “conversations” and “engagement” which are a total crock because they are not based on consumer needs – if you have a support question, it is “service” you require, not a chance to have a faceless corporation try to treat you like a mate to sell you more crap.

    Most people pushing social as a marketing tool remind me of the Maslow quote…….if you only have a hammer you see every problem as a nail.

  19. Corporate wanker
    16 Feb 12
    4:53 pm

  20. Bernie,

    You realise that the model you are referring to is completely unsustainable.

    Businesses can’t make money by paying staff serious $$$ to man/woman Twitter and Facebook accounts to sort out the issues manually. Once they realise this they’ll either disband them or better outsource them all to India.

  21. beezlebub
    16 Feb 12
    5:14 pm

  22. Sloppy work Axel, firing off bullets in the wrong direction

    I think you’ll find that PR people aren’t behind these disasters – marketing and social media specialists are. Perhaps you might like to do a bit of research before maligning the wrong profession.

    @rob is right – the simple problem here is that it’s social media, not corporate media, and its most important function is to serve as a new public complaints channel

    if both Qantas and Westpac and every other bank had thought more about this instead of naively jumping in the deepend with both feet, they would have saved themselves a lot of time and reputation.

    The abscence of social media presences would make no difference whatsoever to their businesses

  23. Andrew Bolt & Gina Reinhardt's Love Child
    16 Feb 12
    5:30 pm

  24. You social media people use a lot of words. I thought 140 characters was the limit?

  25. Glen Fuller
    16 Feb 12
    5:44 pm

  26. @rob and to a lesser extent @beezlebub, rather than wonder why corporates are getting involved, flip the question. If social enables consumers to complain to what they imagine is ‘the brand’, then social serves as a perfect way to extract the negative affect (‘bitterness’, ‘anxiety’, ‘frustration’, etc) out of a given situation without effecting any real change whatsoever. For example, what is the real material consequence of Qantas having a “PR nightmare”? How have they responded? Have they changed their management practices to enfranchise their workers? Have they tried to integrate themselves into real Australian communities to become the ‘spirit of Australia’? Have they done anything? No. These ‘backlash’ scenarios enable companies to fool consumers into thinking they are having a real effect on the way a company exists in the world. (A bit like the functional inverse of a ‘moral panic’. Or what Jodi Dean reading Zizek means when she describes the internet as a ‘zero institution’.) Maybe I am being ultra cynical and maybe I am being too generous in my assessment of the tactical capabilities of the respective marketing teams…. But contra Axel’s point, rather than a failure of PR/marketing practice, faux ‘social media’ controversies seem like a very useful PR tool!

  27. Wowsers OMG
    16 Feb 12
    7:04 pm

  28. Facebook and Twitter are large corporates…

  29. Barb
    16 Feb 12
    10:09 pm

  30. Agree with you, Rob.
    Mumbrella – don’t understand why publish comments by someone with the name ‘Corporate wanker’. Hard to take him seriously but I agree with his comment that it might be unsustainable but the big corps have done the figures I am sure. I have no idea where ‘Luis’ or ‘Greg’ from Telsta twitter are from. Don’t care really… As long as they are listening to their customers, they are succeeding at using social media as a customer channel.

  31. Liam
    17 Feb 12
    9:14 am

  32. A simple thing that brands/agencies never seem to do is a quick buzz report to analyse sentiment BEFORE undertaking social. Any brand with a strong negative sentiment should really think twice before doing an open comment social campaign. But so many do….

  33. Rushdie
    17 Feb 12
    9:54 am

  34. Good lateral thinking Glen Fuller. What does a “PR nightmare” actually mean for a corporation? Anything? Or does it actually create an assumption afterwards that you’ve fixed the problem?

    Is it just me or are these threads getting smarter this year?

  35. rob
    17 Feb 12
    10:34 am

  36. interesting take Glen but I’m not sure that corporate comms/PR teams have the balls to set these controversies up and then respond to look like they are addressing a problem. For a couple of reasons:

    – do we know if the incremental effect of these (if they are) self-created controversies is positive, and if we don’t would they cop the risk?
    – if they get caught manipulating like that they’ll be royally roasted…… topic but akin to the PM’s dumb-ass media adviser who created the OZ day riot

    Your view falls into the “any PR is good PR” camp, which seems to work for B thru Z grade “celebrities” but not so sure for corporates with boards and shareholders and a tendency to ultra-conservatism.

  37. Walter Adamson
    17 Feb 12
    10:52 am

  38. Re Liam’s point on sentiment, it turns out that despite the reasonable expectation that the Qantas job-loss announcement would create a tweetstorm, given the decline in their reputation, it actually caused no difference at all to the relatively low negative sentiment.

    See here:

    In fact, the negative sentiment improved 1% point in the period after the announcement, and runs at a level of about half the routine negative sentiment for Woolworths on Facebook (taken at face value without deep verification of the accuracy of the sentiment analysis).

    So statistically Qantas has not suffered (yet) from these recent “debacles” and job loss announcements.

    Walter @adamson
    @igo2 Group

  39. Karalee
    17 Feb 12
    11:40 am

  40. Walter – are you basing that point on computer-only data or have you manually rated a clear and representative sample of sentiment?

  41. Walter Adamson
    17 Feb 12
    12:04 pm

  42. Good question – only computer-rated data although I scanned the details of the Woolworths Facebook entities and they were generally correctly classified. But to your point I qualified my comment “taken at face value without deep verification of the accuracy of the sentiment analysis”. It takes considerable work for an accurate assessment as you know.

  43. beezlebub
    20 Feb 12
    1:33 pm

  44. @Rob is absolutely right regarding Glen’s remarks – the notion that any PR is good PR might work for Max Markson’s clients (or might be how Naked justified the Witchery Men’s deceit) but certainly not the case in the justifiably conservative corporate world …there is no way corporate comms/PR teams set these controversies up and then respond to look like they are addressing a problem.

    I realise that this kind of thing might look like a good tactic to ad agency bods who think they understand PR and that it’s clever to trick the press, but there’s no way a good PR would pull a blatantly manipulative short term dishonest stunt because their client would suffer at the hands of the press in the longer term