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SAA - an ORM crisis plan

For ages now, we've been arguing the critical importance of online reputation management (ORM), using overused international case studies including Dell Hell and Kryptonite locks - for lack of better local example. Then SAASucks (South African Airways Sucks) arrived at our door the other day and South African ORM instantly got a local case study.
For those of you that haven't been following the SAA debacle, here is a short summary:

  • On the 22 October 2008 Justin Hartman launched - a self-styled site aimed “to expose the consumer injustices happening at South African Airways every day”. At the time of launching, Hartman looked for other similar complaints dating back to 5 July 2007 and in total there are 22 posts - all complaints about SAA.
    SAA - an ORM crisis plan

  • On 24 October 2008, the complaint was submitted both directly to SAA and through getclosure! - it was met with no response from SAA.
  • Massive online revolt ensued and, to date, 1560 individuals have blogged and written about their own negative experiences.
  • Business Day's weekend newspaper The Weekenderthen picked up on the furore online and consequently ran a frontpage story on Saturday, 25 October 2008

Understanding what is happening

Pic by Simone Puterman, powered by Nokia.
Pic by Simone Puterman, powered by Nokia.
click to enlarge
It's simple - SAA's client service isn't up to scratch (as decided by public vote) and, despite constant ranting across the blogosphere, it hasn't shown so much as a hint that it is taking notice and improving upon previous failings. This isn't to say it is not doing anything, but perception is everything and the perception is that it is doing nothing…

What's to be done?

From an ORM perspective, there is a great deal that can be done about this. Firstly, all companies - especially those the size of SAA - should be tracking conversations online. They should also be using this information to focus their customer service on what their customers want and need.

But seeing as Pandora's Box has already been opened, the situation has moved into the realm of online reputation crisis management (ORCM) - think of it as the ugly twin of a word-of-mouth explosion.

Thankfully, there is some existing reading on the topic. A couple of years ago Rob Stokes, Quirk eMarketing's CEO, wrote a post entitled 10 steps to Recover from an Online Brand Attack. These steps can be applied to SAA's example and can hopefully shed some light on the situation:

  1. Humility

    In The Weekender article, an SAA representative said that consumers had the right to express dissatisfaction. She also said that consumers should use existing routes to raise their complaints. From a client service perspective, this is a clear no-brainer - if this route worked, then the entire crisis would have been diverted. Moreover, from an ORCM perspective, its approach was hugely counterproductive. While its intention to resolve the problem is noble, its comment tells the public one thing: “You, the online community, aren't important enough for us to engage with you directly. You must come to us”.

    This is a common error among corporates who believe they are above their consumers and therefore behave without humility ultimately causing them more problems.

  2. Listen

    A blog search for “South African Airways” returns upwards of 16 000 posts. This means that there have been 16 000 instances of people been concerned enough to invest their own time in giving their, unsolicited, thoughts. If SAA followed the conversation, it would have resolved SAAsucks problems over a year and a half ago and turned many brand terrorists into brand evangelists. At the same time, it would get real-time feedback on what consumers do and don't want from their airline service. This in turn could (and should) drive change.

  3. Act immediately!

    SAA should have put its pride aside and engaged directly with Hartman's original post. Unfortunately, that ship has already sailed, so it should now start engaging with each mention about its brand as they happen. This will allow it to put out the many little fires (flashpoints) before they become runaway blazes.

  4. If what they're saying is false...

    While I have no doubt that Hartman's complaints are legitimate, I cannot vouch for the rest of the blogosphere and I'm certain there is some commentary which is exaggerated or even possibly false.
    SAA should begin with these inflammatory conversations and gently point out the factually incorrect elements of individuals' blog posts and comments. It is vital that these responses are truly humble and absolutely honest - a harsh approach here could spell out disaster. It is, however, vital that SAA engage and set the record straight.

  5. If what they're saying is true...

    Then it's time for a little humble pie. As I mentioned earlier, SAA does have some client service issues and it needs to engage with these bloggers, accept fault (potentially publicly) and illustrate ways it is looking to improve. The first place to start would be on but more about this in point seven.

  6. Keep the negative pages out of the search engines

    Consumers often use search engines to find the best deals and research shows that consumers make up their mind within the first 5 - 7 seconds of “meeting the brand”. As such, if SAAsucks made it onto the homepage for a search for SAA, the results would no doubt have direct and fatal consequences for SAA sales. Considering that an airline such as Delta Airlines gets upwards of 1.2 million searches a month, the loss for SAA is potentially huge.

    In order to remove the offending pages from the SERPs (search engine results pages), there are a number of solutions but, unfortunately, none are quick and simple, and it would take some consultancy and implementation from an SEO professional to get the desired results.

    As an aside, this SAAsucks page has made it into the SAA Wikipedia entry - a page which is very credible in the eyes of the search engines; this is definitely something which SAA could and should update to save face.

  7. Engage in the conversation

    Once the conversation has been found, SAA should regularly contribute to the blogs and forums themselves. This will result in the development of a human mouthpiece for the company through which it can defend itself and share company successes. It is, however, vital that it does engage on the community's terms (the power has already shifted away from the company).

    A simple example would be to inform the public of what the progress is in resolving a particular problem. This will result in a fundamental shift in the public's perception: from “an old stagnant airline” to that of one which is “proactively looking to improve”.

    In the case of, SAA would be wise to keep its conversation offline for the moment (email/phone/face-to-face meeting) and be completely honest. The best solution would be to organise a meeting with Hartman, serve a formal apology and, more importantly, open the floor to resolving the problems. Once common ground has been found, SAA should comment on the blog and request feedback from the community and explain their plan of action.

  8. Maintain communication

    Once the conversation has started, SAA shouldn't just step back and wait for this to happen again. If the community is truly interested in improving the quality of service (which I believe is the case), then a continual conversation will provide SAA with the fundamental knowledge to effectively improve on its client service. Continual engagement will also provide SAA with the credibility to push back on factually incorrect commentary while giving it continual direct, unsolicited, client feedback.

  9. Care

    In the original Stokes post, he said, “If you truly care what your customers think then most of this will come naturally.

    My approach is slightly different - while I'm sure SAA care what its customers think, SAA is a business and decisions need to be based on financial reward. So, for SAA here is a short financial justification:

    • 71% of financial advisers believe that a brand's reputation is worth at least 20% of its total value (FTIConsulting - 2007).
    • SAA is worth approximately R2 billion (as of the 2006/7 financial year).
    • Its reputation is therefore worth about R400 million
    • If the blogosphere results in just a 1% drop in reputation, then SAA lose R4 million in value.
    • An ORM tool and a team of ORM managers (team of two) for a year will cost a maximum of R420 000.
    • This activity will surely increase the reputation by at least 1% and therefore justify the cost outset - let alone the risk.

    Let me be the first to point out that SAA is government-owned so the maths is somewhat flawed. Yet this does provide a fantastic business case for any company toying with the idea of managing its reputation.

  10. Be prepared

    Bigger brands such as SAA are always going to get public commentary and as the typical consumer engagement model is changing, companies need to remodel how they engage with their consumers. This remodeling includes an update to their communications plan, roles and responsibility and view of consumers. This will allow them to be one step ahead of future problems.

About Tim Shier

Tim Shier, formerly Quirk marketing manager, is the MD of sister company BrandsEye (, @brandseye), a world-class online reputation management company based in Cape Town, with offices in Johannesburg and London. With an degree in computer science and psychology, Tim has unique experiences with both technology and human behaviour - the perfect blend for top-notch eMarketing and ORM cunning. Contact Tim on> or tel +27 (0)21 462 7353. Follow @timshier on Twitter.
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