Recently, one of our social media interns noticed a tweet by a well-known fire service author and, following his lead, retweeted the same post as “Fire Engineering.” The post was in many respects uncomplimentary to my good friends at the International Society for Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and other fire service groups that I respect greatly. The post’s writer has every right to his opinion regardless of the fact that I don’t agree with it or the motives it ascribed to my friends. I was informed of the Society’s displeasure of the retweet by the president of the ISFSI in a very polite and sophisticated way. He accepted my explanation and relayed it to the board members, who understandably felt Fire Engineering had turned against them or failed to support their efforts.
This is an example of how dangerous and explosive social media can be in large part because of our emotional responses to things that damage or assault our character and self-image. It highlights how easy it is for someone to innocently participate in social media and have potentially caused tremendous harm without any ill motives whatsoever. Egos and emotions are fragile; we all have them, and we all react when we are assaulted and offended and especially when that offense comes from an organization or a person we thought cared about us and had our best interests in mind.
My friends are not the only ones who have had an experience with an organization offending them online as a result of the actions of an intern or employee representing that organization. My uncle died in New York recently; my sister was in DC, so she booked an American Airlines (AA) flight to JFK Airport. I was in DC on business and got the same flight so we could travel together to the wake. I got the last seat. As I was on the bus going to the plane, my sister texted me that she was taken off the flight at the gate. They didn’t announce the flight was overbooked or ask for volunteers to get off; they stopped my sister at the door and told her that her seat was broken, but she told them that wasn’t true-she saw them assign her seat to the guy in line beside her. Then they told her, “You bought the last seat.” No, she told them, my brother did. Then they said it was a random computer choice; after a few minutes, they told her it was because she had the lowest fare.
I was ahead of my sister in line, so I was on the bus to the plane and was told I couldn’t get off the bus. AA decided to put my sister on a later flight to LaGuardia, but her luggage was still going to JFK. Remember, we were going to a wake that night. I was a member of the honor guard (my uncle was Navy, NYPD, and a firefighter), so now we were two hours apart in different ends of New York City.
I tweeted my disgust with how AA treated my family at a very sensitive time, and here is how customer service replied:
“We are sure that the body is not going anywhere soon.” Not exactly what I thought I would hear from an airline customer service person in response to a tweet about poor service. My initial reaction, much like that of my friends at the ISFSI, was that I was wounded. I also felt that the organization was responsible for this person’s rudeness. That was my initial, albeit fairly normal, reaction to being treated in such a way. I felt AA had let me down. After some reflection, I realized it was not AA but an unaware employee at a Twitter desk who let me down.
The important thing is how you handle a misstep after it has occurred. In FE’s case, we told our intern to be more judicious in his retweets. We made it very clear that we do not support or retweet hit pieces and that we require our posters to read the entire piece before they retweet any article or blog post. That way, they can be sure that it’s good content and not intended to harm anyone or besmirch anyone’s reputation. We also contacted our friends at the ISFSI and apologized for our intern’s lack of discretion. The Society was understanding.
As to my experience with AA, I sent a letter to a good friend of mine who is employed there, as I could find nowhere on its Web site to send a tweet to customer service. I sent the letter almost immediately after I read the tweet, so it was not a very kind letter; it was an angry letter. I am sure that AA received it, because the tweet was soon taken off Twitter. After a letter from my publisher Eric Schlett, a month later I received a very polite and apologetic phone call from Jessica at AA. We had a wonderful conversation, and the issue was resolved from my perspective.
I will continue to loyally support American Airlines as my airline of choice. American Airlines is a great airline. I think that the people there are amazing and dedicated. I think that the service people get is generally great. I think that every now and then, we and the folks who work with us do unthinking things that we sincerely regret. Forgiving those transgressions is important; learning from them is critical.
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