An Australian airline telling an American rapper to “EAD (eat a dick), you douche” via Twitter is not the sort of pronouncement most in the travel industry would expect on a slow Tuesday.
Particularly since Virgin Australia doesn’t have much form in the past for commenting widely beyond its patch of domestic aviation. Or at least where consuming appendages is concerned.
But this incident got me thinking recently about the fine line between creating a Frankenstein style PR shitstorm and a genuine coup that endears a brand to people well beyond expectations (or intentions).
I suppose I believe the official version of last week’s strangest travel yarn, which as far as I can tell runs something like this. Bombastic rapper and renowned stage invader Kanye West releases his latest album to less than fawning acclaim from music critics Pitchfork (they had the temerity to rate it a 9/10). Kanye responds with trademark humility by telling Pitchfork via a tweet that his album is in fact a 30/10.
Back on our shores, an anonymous employee at Carat Australia – who count Virgin Australia as one of the studs in their impressive stable of clients – can contain themselves no longer and lets rip in response to West’s conceit. Evidently this employee has shot first and asked questions later, unaware they were still logged into Virgin’s account and not their own.
Next comes the standard PR fire extinguishing. The tweet is quickly deleted and a two part apology is issued from Virgin Australia’s Twitter account promising the ubiquitous investigation to root out the culprit and also saying sorry for using some naughty words.
The tweet was only live for a short time, but as my colleague Erin Doyle at our sister publication B&T is fond of saying, “the internet is forever”. Once the incongruity of a domestic airline calling out a much maligned and well known music figure made it to mainstream media, a hell of a lot more people than Virgin’s 210,000 Twitter followers became aware of the outburst.
And here’s the funny part, the tweet seemed to have the opposite effect of causing general outrage and tarnishing Virgin’s brand. If some of the responses I saw were any guide, a large majority of Twitter users found it rather amusing. In particular I think with, say, under 35s it would have resonated for several reasons. Firstly it was comprised of the kind of casual, Urban Dictionary-esque profanity that is now the staple of youth-oriented websites like Buzzfeed and Pedestrian.tv. It also tapped into the Zeitgeist nicely, having a pop at a pantomime villain of the music world just as the Grammy Awards were being dolled out. Both these factors might just have given Virgin a brief adrenalin shot of street cred among a certain significant demographic. Then again, maybe the majority of people just thought they’d been hacked and had a chuckle.
The denouement played out in very PR fashion too. As reported on B&T, Carat Australia eventually fessed up, with a representative stating: “The staff member responsible is still working with us and we are assessing a suitable course of disciplinary action with them.”
Call me a cynic but I wouldn’t be stunned if said staff member, far from being given a flogging with the proverbial cat’o’nine tails, was given a bottle of bubbly instead – or maybe just a gentle rap across the knuckles.
Personally, the whole episode reinforced how fickle the online world of Twitter can be in a PR sense. After all, this PR event started with a petty act of spite that was reciprocated. Take the poor folks at Malaysia Airlines in late 2014 by contrast, who with the best intentions in the world, ran a promotion asking its followers to reveal their “bucket list”. A bucket list of course, is the list of things you wish to achieve before you die – unfortunate timing indeed, given that over 500 of the carrier’s passengers had perished in the MH370 and MH17 disasters only months earlier. Unsurprisingly, that campaign was hastily renamed “your ultimate to-do list” after more than a few people tweeted that flying Malaysia Airlines would definitely not be on their bucket list. It’s a razor’s edge this PR caper.
But whatever actually went down with Carat’s fast fingered employee, I’m calling this one an inadvertent success. And hey, Carat walked away with the Media Agency of the Year gong at the 2015 B&T Awards, so they’re clearly doing something right.
Now, let’s all sit back and wait and wait for Qantas to start dissing Tay Tay or Bruno Mars…