Corporations are people: British Airways Admiral PR

Corporations are people: British Airways

On Saturday evening the Twitter account for British Airways retweeted a racist and obscene tweet from a customer. The tweet reportedly remained on the airline’s Twitter page for up to an hour.

The first that most followers of the @british_airways account knew was an apologetic follow-up tweet.

British Airways may have a legal case to answer. Twitter is no different to any other form of media from a legal standpoint. The laws governing defamation, slander and decency apply on Twitter just as in any other form of media whether a village notice board or an international news organisation.

Defamation is the charge levelled by Lord McAlpine at the estimated 10,000 Twitter users that wrongly named him as a paedophile following the botched BBC Newsnight programme. These cases will break new ground and will force attitudes to social media to quickly mature.

The retweet by British Airways was clearly a mistake. I’m speculating but it’s likely that someone in the customer service team hit retweet on an online management system rather than creating a task or some other element of workflow.

Inevitably Twitter users have called out British Airways and traditional media outlets have made much of the error.

The response by the airline has been spot-on, to a point. It deleted the tweet as soon as the error was identified, apologised to its followers and said that it was investigating what may have happened.

24 hours later we’re still waiting for an answer. I’m not sure why it is taking so long.

Here’s the issue. Corporations are people. As they become increasingly social, as customers demand, mistakes such as an occasional inappropriate retweet are inevitable.

It is critical that anyone that manages a Twitter account on behalf of an organisation is trained in the rudiments of media law and that robust processes are in place. Even then errors will occasionally occur.

The real story here should be the abuse that corporate Twitter accounts receive from customers.

Occasionally as a journalist I’d vent my fury at poor service by threatening to write a damning piece of editorial to shame an offending company into action.

“Do you know who I am?” was my childish mantra. Only the most professional of journalists have not tried this tactic.

Public relations practitioners, sitting on the receiving end of demands from the media, are well used to the tactic.

But “Do you know who I am?” is no longer purely the refrain of journalists. Anyone with a blog or significant Twitter presence can call an organisation to account.

You can see the petulant tweets day-in day-out. Yesterday, someone from British Airways, for whatever reason, retweeted one of those messages.

It’s not very social is it?


Blog post by Stephen Waddington.

Stephen is an entrepreneur and former journalist who moved into PR in the early 1990s to work with UK technology start-ups.  He joined Admiral as non-executive chairman in January 2010.

Having consulted some of the world’s largest brands, and being a regular commentator and public speaker on PR issues in the media, Stephen was recently shortlisted by Reputation Online as one of greatest contributors to online communications in the past year.

Stephen sits on the CIPR’s Social Media Panel and the PRCA’s PR Council.

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