Lost in the fog – is Etihad’s social media crisis down to an operational failure?

For some passengers, the experience of the fog and resultant delays weren’t helped by Etihad’s social media support despite the best efforts of the social media team (image source: http://www.todayszaman.com)

I love challenges. I’m an even bigger fan of crises. They seem to bring out the best in us, pushing us to our limits and testing our abilities. While I admit to enjoying being put through the ringers, I do feel for Etihad’s social media team during a bout of fog at the beginning of January. On the first Saturday of the year, during a peak time of year for travel, think fog descended on the UAE’s capital and closed Abu Dhabi International Airport for just over an hour. The airport’ closure affected Etihad’s scheduling for several days.

Before I go further, let me brief you on the airline’s communications outreach. Etihad has a sophisticated social media set-up, including a dedicated Twitter account for Etihad’s customer service, at @EtihadHelp, as well as customer support on Facebook. Etihad’s response time is usually less than 20 minutes, and each and every customer correspondence from the team is signed off by the team member’s initials.

The fog literally consumed the social media team however. As people, the one instance that we can all agree on is that we hate anything going wrong when we travel, including travel delays and lost luggage. Stories of delays, including passengers stranded on the tarmac for half a day, without food or information, made headlines globally. Etihad’s social media channels were replete with angry passengers looking for a solution to their problems. Have a look at some of the exchanges below as well as media coverage.

This is one example of many of the discussions that took place on Facebook between Etihad and its customers following the fog

This is one example of many of the discussions that took place on Facebook between Etihad and its customers following the fog

A number of thoughts come to mind. While Etihad has a stellar social media operation, how much leverage does the social media have over operations. Or to put it slightly differently, what accountability is there between operations and the social media team. Does the organizational structure, either formal or informal, help or hinder the social media team’s operations on behalf of customers? Etihad is a large organization of just under 15,000 employees; what can the social media team do on the customer’s behalf?

I’ll admit, these are special circumstances. Thousands of passengers were either stranded or had their luggage misplaced. However, we now live in a connected world where consumers’ expectations are amplified. While social media can speed up communications with consumers, is social media being set up to fail if operations cannot keep up? What are your thoughts?