Stepping into the Continent’s Political Minefield – Etihad’s Independence Day faux-pas

When I was growing up and in the Gulf, I was often told by my father, “don’t talk about three things.” Those three things were politics, religion and sex. One was to never go against this cardinal rule. Of course, rules are made to be broken. But there’s a difference between when an individual does this, and when a corporation gets it wrong.

The past couple of days are important for our friends from the Asian sub-continent. The 14th of August is the commemoration of Pakistan’s independence from the British Empire. The very next day, the 15th of August, is symbolic for Indians as the date of India’s independence. Both countries are neighbors, but due to history and politics their relationship hasn’t always been neighborly.

Etihad stepped into the political minefield yesterday. The national airline was ostensibly trying to do the right thing by reaching out to Indian nationals and wishing them a Happy Independence Day. Over and above the emotional aspect of the occasion, the move makes perfect sense – Etihad has a sizable stake in the Indian airline Jet Airways, and Indians make up over a third of the UAE’s population. The post, on Etihad’s LinkedIn page, should have been welcomed by all.

Etihad's Happy Independence Day message to India... It's a shame Etihad forgot to do the same for Pakistan the day before.

Etihad’s Happy Independence Day message to India… It’s a shame Etihad forgot to do the same for Pakistan the day before.

However, Etihad forgot one thing. They hadn’t posted the same for Pakistan the day before. Reading through the comments and it’s clear that the Pakistani nationals have found umbrage with Etihad’s faux-pas. While the majority of responses are positive, those from Etihad’s Pakistani national followers speak for themselves.

Etihad's move to wish well to India and not to Pakistan for their respective Independence Days didn't go down well with the airline's Pakistani fans

Etihad’s move to wish well to India and not to Pakistan for their respective Independence Days didn’t go down well with the airline’s Pakistani fans

It’s an easy mistake to make in a country which is home to over 130 different nationalities, but when you consider that Pakistani nationals make up a sizable percentage of the UAE’s population (probably 10 to 15 percent), plus the history between the two nations, maybe Etihad would have been best advised to either go all in or not wish anyone a Happy Independence Day. As is, a simple omission can lead to the loss of both business and reputation among a key segment of the population.

Will Etihad’s use of Twitter for Premium customer communications take off?

Etihad's Premium Twitter account is an exclusive account just for Etihad's Gold customers. Is Twitter the right channel for reaching out to premium customers however?

Etihad’s Premium Twitter account is an exclusive account just for Etihad’s Gold customers. Is Twitter the right channel for reaching out to premium customers however?

Excuse the pun in the title, but Etihad caught my eye this week with the news that it has set up a new Twitter account to communicate exclusively with Etihad Guest Gold members. The account, named @EtihadPremium, was launched at the beginning of May and Etihad Guest Gold members, Etihad customers who have flown 50,000 tier miles or 40 tier segments in one 12 month period, received emails on the new service. Below is the text of the email that Etihad sent out to its Etihad Guest Gold members over a month ago (courtesy of www.flyertalk.com).

We’ve launched a Twitter Channel to better serve you! We value your loyalty and have created a new channel that delivers a range of benefits with you, our guest, in mind.

Etihad Guest Gold members can now follow us on http://www.twitter.com/EtihadPremium and enjoy the following exclusive benefits:

Five minute response times
Dedicated service
Retro mileage claims
Exclusive deals

To sign up, please:

Email us at socialmedia@etihad.ae with: a photocopy of your Etihad Guest Card, Date of Birth, Post Code, Twitter Handle.
Please allow 24 hours for review and verification.
Post-verification, our team will follow you on Twitter and send a confirmation email.
Follow us back at http://www.twitter.com/EtihadPremium

The choice of Twitter has sparked some debate online. Hussein Dajani, a UAE-based social media commentator, listed on his LinkedIn profile some of the reasons why he thought Etihad’s use of Twitter didn’t make sense.

1- Etihad already has many existing Twitter accounts (Etihad Airways, Etihad Deals, Etihad Help, etc). Do people (Premium or not) really need one more account to follow?
2- Most of the “Premium” users are high profile people, how many of those are actually on Twitter or would use Twitter when having an inquiry or a complaint?
3- Will Etihad block a person if he / she no longer remains as a Premium customer?
4- How is Etihad being transparent and “fair” to all its customers when treating them differently?
5- Can’t Etihad identify who are its Premium customers from non Premium customers and get their Twitter handles?

Etihad’s social media lead Asif Khan shared his opinion as well. According to Asif, the reasons why Etihad went with Twitter for this concept were the customers themselves.

Etihad has public Twitter accounts and pretty tight SLAs for them – all users (Premium and non-Premium). This is an additional Twitter account for Premium members because there was massive demand – we have done proper research and tried to fulfill appetite – not just another channel launch. You’d be surprised to know how many Premium inquiries we receive. It’s just having a unique key number of managing first class and business class guests on a contact centre – different is its a Twitter account.

Just to clarify, this is an additional channel for communication with our high-valued guests – not the ONLY channel. There are other traditional channels that are being used – dedicated contact centre number, email address, etc. etc. Not sure if I entirely agree with your one-many concept because end of the day we’re not broadcasting information on this channel (one-many) because the intent is to have meaningful personalised conversation with each premium customer with contextual information available to us.

With premium customers, personalization is key. They want a one-to-one conversation, and they want the best possible support. Talking to a Facebook executive recently, she told me that Whatsapp was the sleeping giant of the Middle East’s digital sector. Back in March, Whatsapp was named the region’s most popular means of online communication by a survey commissioned by the Dubai Government.

But let’s go further. Whatsapp is one-to-one communication, through which one can share images, video, and recorded audio messages (we can’t use Whatsapp Call in the UAE as it’s blocked on a national level). Whatsapp can also share the user’s location or a contact, and its secure. Unlike a Twitter handle, I can’t communicate with another Whatsapp user unless I know their mobile number – and, let’s face it, how many premium customers will be flying around the world without a mobile?

The other concern I have is about Twitter and its security. What will Etihad do if the Twitter account is hacked? How can it safeguard the information of these premium customers?

The response to Etihad’s initiative has been mixed on travel websites such as OneMileAtATime and FlyerTalk, with some premium passengers praising the move, others saying they don’t have a Twitter account, and some going so far as to say that Etihad needs to improve its overall customer service levels available through its existing social media accounts.

I’d be fascinated to see how this works for Etihad. The initiative is bold, but with the choice of communications being Twitter will it work as Etihad hopes?

When is a brand-celebrity engagement toxic? The Etihad and Landmark stories

Have brand associations between Kidman and Etihad and Khan and Splash helped or hindered their respective brands?

Have brand associations between Kidman and Etihad and Khan and Splash helped or hindered their respective brands?

We just love celebrity endorsements. They’re useful for building brand equity, for improving ad recall, they convey celebrity status to the brand, and help brands stand out from the pack. When done right, celebrity engagements work wonders for the brand. Think Michael Jordan and Nike or Beyonce and Pepsi.

And then there’s what we do in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf. I’ve had a number of views come my way, particularly in relation to two deals which were done recently. The first is for the Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad. In March Etihad signed up Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman to front up its latest advertising push which focused on Etihad’s redefinition of luxury travel. You can see the video below.

A global name, Kidman is Etihad’s fourth brand ambassador from Australia (can you name the other three, or the airline’s one Frenchman and German sports stars?). The discussion comes in around Etihad’s customer groups and how much the airline’s brand ambassadors actually resonate with these groups. Despite being Abu Dhabi-based and owned by the UAE’s capital, Etihad doesn’t have a single Arabic-speaking or Arab national as a brand ambassador. It’s hard to know how much Kidman would resonate with audiences in the Gulf, but Etihad hasn’t done much to find and leverage off brand ambassadors who’d appeal to Arabs in and around the Gulf (particularly those who are likely to travel in first class).

For Kidman, the association with Etihad has brought its own risks. Just a couple of weeks after the deal with Etihad, Kidman was criticized by a flight attendants’ union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, following her appearance in an advert for an airline it claims treats female employees “deplorably” and operates using “discriminatory labour practices”.

While there’s always a risk of being targeted, and criticized, by a specific interest group as in the case of Kidman, there’s even more risk to a brand’s equity when a celebrity misbehaves (think Tiger Woods and affairs with adult film stars) or does something which consumers may consider to be unethical.

One such example is Bollywood filmstar Salman Khan. Khan, who is an A-list film star in India, is the face of Dubai-based clothing retailer Splash. However, over the past week Khan was found guilty of committing manslaughter in a hit-and-run accident back in 2002 (Khan was allegedly drunk and lost control of his car, which slammed into a group of homeless people sleeping on a pavement).

The editor of Arabian Business, Anil Bhoyrul, penned a strongly-worded opinion piece on the issue only this week. The piece has gone on to become one of the most commented-on pieces in the history of the online news portal.

On a roll, Arabian Business published a piece about a public backlash against Splash for their support of Khan. You can read excerpts below.

Dubai-based Landmark Group is facing a public backlash, after the CEO of one of its leading brands described convicted Bollywood killer Salman Khan as a “great man.”

Bollywood star Salman Khan, who is a brand ambassador for Splash, was sentenced to five years in jail after being found guilty of killing a homeless man while driving under the influence of alcohol. He is currently on bail pending an appeal.

Khan was appointed as a brand ambassador for Splash in 2013, and is currently featured in a number of advertising campaigns for the retailer’s products. His face appears in several large billboards across Dubai, promoting clothing ranges.

But despite the conviction, Splash CEO Raza Beig said last week: “At Splash we love Salman Khan and we will support him through every up & down. My heart breaks to find out about the verdict but as they say every great man in history has gone through some struggle to achieve greater heights so probably this is his calling. We cannot comment on the judgement and do not believe he deserves it but Allah’s will it is.”

Will this brand association and the support of Splash’s CEO for Khan turn toxic and lead to a public boycott? What’s certain is that the Splash brand will not be helped by the current association with Khan, and the CEO’s stance would appear to be at odds with the opinion of many Splash customers. There is one truth all brands need to bear in mind – the consumer is boss. What matters is not what is important to us as people who manage the brand(s), but rather what is important to them.

What do you think of these celebrity endorsements? Are they flying high or are they a damp squib (excuse the puns). Share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

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?

The silent expatriate guests – should we raise our voices or remain quiet on sensitive subjects?

Should we as expatriates remain silent or speak up about issues which we feel are contrary to our beliefs? (image source: http://www.thewordontheword.blogspot.com/)

The past week has been an interesting one for foreign media junkies who follow affairs in the Gulf. Two articles were published in the English-speaking press which have proved to be controversial. The first was a damning piece in the New York Times on labor rights for workers hired from the Asian sub-continent to build the New York University Abu Dhabi. The second was a fine piece of investigative journalism from the Sydney Morning Herald on the subject of government subsidies for Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-owned airline.

The above criticisms in the foreign media shouldn’t surprise experienced communications professionals. Etihad is becoming a global brand with stakes in a number of airlines across Europe and Australia. Similarly, the report about labour issues relates to an American institution, New York University, and its Abu Dhabi campus. Qatar has similarly experienced negative publicity from abroad relating to the country’s labour practices following its winning of the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.

Recently, I attended a conference on the subject of corporate social responsibility. When asked about whether expatriates should tackle these issues with both governments and the national population, one of the most senior communications professionals in the region responded by saying ‘we’re the guests and so we shouldn’t tackle these issues.’

Unfortunately, the most common refrain to any comment which can be taken in a negative light is, ‘if you don’t like it, then leave.’ There’s a lack of moral courage shown by many expatriates to talk about issues which may offend, or which may get them into the bad books. Similarly, are many nationals willing to listen to the opinions of others? The concept of traditional Arabian hospitality is often talked about, a tradition that requires the host to listen to and honour the guest, but the reality on the ground is often different.

Modern societies are mature enough to take on board different voices, to learn from the opinions of others. As a person who has tried to do his part for the rights of others, I do find it embarrassing that as the people who live here in the region, we’re unable to raise these issues with our hosts in a civilized dialogue (and for those who say I’m looking to impose foreign, western standards there are many hadiths or sayings of the Prophet pbuh on issues such as workers’ rights).

Should we have the moral courage to speak on these issues, to benefit the communities and the countries with which and in which we live? Or should we remain silent? The answer, to me at least, is obvious. What do you say?

How to get on Etihad’s The Residence for free thanks to Kickstarter

The past week has witnessed its fair share of oohs and aahs at the region’s largest tourism show in Dubai. One of the biggest jaw-droppers was the announcement by Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad of a new travel experience. Named the Residence and akin to a flat in the sky for those traveling on select routes on Etihad’s A380s, the 120 plus square feet of space offers travelers a dining space and living room, their own en-suite shower and bedroom. With perks that include chairs fitted out with the same leather as a Ferrari, a personal butler on call, a personal vanity unit, wardrobe and swiveling TV monitor for viewing from either the seat or the bed. All of this will cost you approximately US$20,000 one way when flying from from Abu Dhabi to London.

And just to prove the point, why don’t you let Etihad’s Guest Ambassador, Dannii Minogue take you on a tour of The Residence.

One budding travel reviewer has turned to Kickstarter to help him raise the money needed to purchase a Residence ticket (I don’t know if you’d purchase a ticket for a flat in the sky). The very young-looking Ben Schlappig is the editor of the One Mile At A Time blog on the Boarding Area website, and his pitch goes like this:

Etihad Airways new A380 features a concept that I believe will revolutionize commercial air travel. Help me review the product!

I’ve been flying frequently since a very young age, and travel and aviation are my greatest passions. Over time that passion for travel and flying grew to finding the cheapest way to travel in luxury. And over the years I’ve reviewed most of the world’s best first class products.

With only one “Residence” per flight, this may very well be the first A380 premium cabin product for which you can’t redeem miles. This may change over time, but with only one “cabin” per flight it’s highly unlikely.

As a result, it may be a long time before we get an independent review of Etihad’s A380 Residences.

What I propose is flying the Residences product within the first week it’s in service, so I can report on all aspects of the experience. Chances are it would otherwise be a long time before we get an unbiased review of Etihad’s new product.

While the thought of paying for someone else to fly in the lap of luxury to write a review may leave some in horror Ben has already raised US$11,000. With 22 days to go, can he raise the additional US$14,000 he needs for his trip? If he does, I’m going to start my own travel blog and try never to pay for a flight myself again.

If you have excess cash which you have no idea what to do with and now want to donate to this cause, go here and splash some cash for Ben.

PS On another note, while I love her to bits (I still remember her in Australian soap Neighbours) does Dannii Minogue scream luxury? She may let loose during the YouTube video to the chagrin of many of those who have left comments but I would have hoped Etihad would have splashed the cash to bring in someone who would be easier to associate with top-tier luxury. What are your thoughts?

Social media brand hijacking – Emirates and Etihad fakes and lessons for a corporate online presence

A story broke at the beginning of the month about a couple of campaigns out there in the social media universe. Both piggybacked on two of the UAE’s most established brands. Essentially, the two campaigns offered those who followed the chance to win free flights with Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways.

According to the UAE’s English-language newspaper The National which broke the story here in the UAE, the promotion launched on the picture-sharing site Instagram and stated that the first 20,000 people who would follow each account and would share the respective campaigns with a specific hashtag would receive free tickets for themselves plus one to Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The Emirates Instagram account was named EMIRATESPROMOTION while the Etihad campaign ran under the hashtag #EtihadPromotion.

The branding is there, the name may be dodgy, but there's no official Emirates account. So why not believe it?

The branding is there, the name may be dodgy, but there’s no official Emirates account. So why not believe it?

Too good to be true you may think, and the campaigns were fake. That didn’t stop 10,000 people following the fake Emirates account which featured the company’s logo and photos skinned from the company’s website. I don’t know how long the fake competitions were up and running for, but both Emirates and Etihad put out statements warning people not to fall for the fake campaigns. The Emirates statement is below.

To all our fans, Emirates has three official social media channels which are:

http://www.facebook.com/emirates
http://www.google.com/+Emirates
http://www.youtube.com/Emirates

When we launch competitions or new social media channels, you will be the first to know via our Facebook, G+ or YouTube channels and on emirates.com.

Thank you for your continued support
Emirates”

Emirates also sent a statement to the Australian website The Vine stating that “Emirates Airline does not have an official Instagram account. Any Emirates-related accounts or promotions on Instagram do not belong to us.”

Similarly, Etihad wrote on its Twitter account that “Etihad Airways has no association with any accounts or promotions (such as #EtihadPromotion) competition currently running on Instagram as we don’t have an official Instagram account yet. Thanks for checking.”

How does this concept sound to you? There’s lots of random people out there on social media, and scams and the internet aren’t mutually exclusive. So why do brands focus on some social media channels and not others? For example, both Emirates and Etihad don’t have Instagram accounts. Emirates doesn’t even have a Twitter account. Wouldn’t it be best for a brand simply to park their presence on the major social media channels (no one can do everything on social media, there’s simply too many channels and sites out there).

And this point may be even more relevant albeit off on a tangent for Emirates, which spends several hundred million dollars on sports marketing (the most recent announcement being the tie-up with Formula One). Isn’t the airline missing out through not focusing on social media? Imagine how much Emirates could achieve in brand positioning and amplifying that sports marketing spend by promoting itself through social media. As I’ve said before, technology is a wonderful leveler. It’d seem a waste not to wring every single penny in return on investment from those mega-bucks sports sponsorships.

So next time you see a promotion which is too good to be true just send a Facebook message to the airlines and ask them if they’ve gotten round in Instagram (or Twitter in Emirates’ case). And, as they say in France bon chance!

This gentleman clearly feels Emirates would benefit from more social media presence. Do you?

This gentleman clearly feels Emirates would benefit from more social media presence. Do you?