Guest Column: Social media can either be the tool that builds a company or the dagger that kills it: Dr Kushal Sanghvi, Director, Vitamin T

Sanghvi, former business head of Reliance Entertainment and Digital, on the pros and cons of the anytime availability of social media

Guest Column: Social media can either be the tool that builds a company or the dagger that kills it: Dr Kushal Sanghvi, Director, Vitamin T

Most companies around the world have taken on social media and its pretty much a given that it’s not something that they can ignore at all. But it’s not about being present, but having your social media teams continually engaging, responding to customers and it only gets more important in the services marketing space and the onus lies in clarity of communication from the marketer in real time situations or that of crisis. From a viral video purporting to show poor treatment of banking customers, to a UK retailer’s rogue employee live-tweeting mass layoffs, to a prestigious university’s social media pages maliciously hacked- no sector is immune to reputational assaults via social media.

A case in point is the recent United Airlines viral explosion the world over. Sure by now with over a million trolls we know the world pretty much got on a frenzy this Tuesday as the shares in United Airlines slipped by just over 1% as the company scrambled to address a video showing a passenger being forcibly dragged off an overbooked flight. In fact most of the seated passengers recorded the incident on their phones and posted video on social media showing three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers dragging the man, who has not been identified earlier down the aisle by the arms and legs while other passengers shout in protest. He continued to resist after he was removed and ran back onto the airplane, face bloodied from the encounter. Sadly following the backlash, United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement calling the incident "upsetting" and apologized "for having to re-accommodate" customers but didn’t do much to appease the social audiences. Anger was not limited to the U.S., the incident was the number one trending topic Tuesday on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Weibo and more.

The man who was removed from the flight for accommodating airline staff was a well-travelled doctor and needed to get home to treat patients the next day. He was filmed with blood flowing down his chin afterwards, saying: “I want to go home, I want to go home." Only shocking to hear statements from the CEO saying that “We followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this” and this trolled for hours on social media too. Being honest, realistic and sympathetic in such situations could have very well saved them a fortune, but not reacting proactively got the blood bath starting on their stocks.

One man’s loss and is another’s again and as a reaction then to the same Munoz who just few weeks ago mentioned about Emirates and other airlines from its region: "Those [Gulf] airlines aren't airlines. They're just branding vehicles for their countries."

So while this incident occurred, Emirates got back in arms with a quick and clever YouTube video that suggests it's friendly and that United, as this week has shown, is not. Creative images and trolls with messages like United VS United went up world-over with chats on Twitter even suggesting that they have boycotted and banned their employees from flying United. Perhaps in times like crisis not replying on social could be Munoz stand but its cost him a lifetime of trust to build.

And virality comes in all shades for a brand like millions also recently applauded Turkish Airlines cabin crew for giving birth to a baby on the flight and perhaps made all women get a notch closer to this brand.

In September last year less than a month after Samsung launched its new Galaxy Note 7 smartphone and they recalled more than 3 million devices it had sold to that point after social media reports that the phone was prone to overheating and spontaneous combustion. Eventually, it halted production and scrapped the product entirely at a cost of at least $6 billion.

The Samsung crisis and more specifically, the resilience of the company and the brand despite the recall crisis is a much-needed humility check for crisis experts: prognosticate with caution. Traditional media and blogs were filled with crisis pundits armchair-quarterbacking Samsung’s crisis management, and the consensus was bleak, but they’ve been responsive despite all the mudslinging and risen like a phoenix only all set for the much awaited S8.

And it’s all the more critical when the crisis is with iconic legacy brands. Cyrus Mistry's dramatic removal as chairman of Tata Sons last year was not just the biggest business story to emerge from India in recent times. It also shone a spotlight on the public relations moves that underpinned an unseemly war of words between the $100B Tata empire on one hand, and four-year chairman Mistry on the other and this had Tata and Cyrus trolling for weeks and months impacting share prices of all Tata Group companies.

Social media can either be the tool that builds a company or the dagger that kills it. Keep your company protected by using social media crisis management properly and avoid public relations disasters and it could very well just start with some easy pointers for the communications team:

  • Communicate with honesty, candor and openness while acknowledging risk
  • Collaborate and coordinate with credible sources
  • Meet the needs of the media and remain accessible
  • Communicate with compassion, concern and empathy
  • Accept uncertainty and ambiguity

(The author is Director, Vitamin T)
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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