Do online communities overreact? Qantas Airways published a photo of two fans with blacked out faces and wigs on, causing a controversy on Twitter, in spite of Radike Samo not minding at all.  My view is that there are deeper issues here -Qantas brand voice on social media is not their traditional marketing voice. What would Virgin do? Staff should be backed on social media and the Community is NOT always right!

I received an email from a journalist at B&T asking for a quote on this situation below. For once my social network let me down – I was off Twitter and therefore unaware of the Black Face incident! (background article BandT)

black face qantas airways twitter

A photograph of two men who dressed in black face paint and wigs at Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup has been withdrawn from the Qantas Twitter feed, after it sparked outrage for encouraging racism.

An official Qantas competition which asked fans to show their support for the Wallabies in the clash against New Zealand over the weekend, awarded free tickets to a man who pledged to dress as Fijian-born player, Radike Samo.

In the interest of completeness, below is what I rattled off to Maddie, in full about social networks and value systems. Cos I have a publishing medium too – but it feels a bit cheeky. Is it my content or hers now? *sighs* the modern day 1st world problems of content distribution.

Social networks are about people coming together around a shared purpose AND a shared Value system. In the case of the Black Face incident, the members share a purpose (love of sport) but different value systems (humour, politics). It’s probably worth noting that the people behind the business in social media show their value systems – and that a company runs the risk of being impersonally inhuman if they attempt to be politically correct to the point of absurdity. Given that Radike didnt’ take offence, and saw it as supportive, Qantas needs to be careful of over reacting. Often Twitter has only 1% of your customer base, but as it’s the most vocal 1% situations can exacerbate out of all proportion – including jumping to mainstream media. I am NOT an advocate of “the community is always right” approach to social media management, you end up making a rod for your own back.

I have 8 different options for managing negative criticism – from ignoring to apologising to fighting back – but Qantas needs to resolve their brand social voice issues first as they will ALWAYS have naysayers who take a joke the wrong way, or who will not be satisfied with an apology. You might want to look at point 7 about Southwest Airlines and fighting back.

No  doubt traditional media such as magazines and newspapers will turn the story into a “social media is bad for your business, watch out” rather than highlight the fact that many social issues are now being truly discussed and educated and in some cases resolved in social media. Hidden social problems such as racism, bullying and so on are now spotlighted and discussed so we can see how endemic they are. Prior to social media, it was often “not in my neighbourhood/workplace/family” with no real understanding of how systemic the problems were, right under our noses.

I have no doubt that Qantas will attempt to backtrack out of this apologising left right and centre, but they do a disservice to their staff by not backing them with Radike’s full support. Unfortunately staff morale often suffers when an overly contrite response is made by companies in social media to a perceived gaffe. This is not a small issue – Qantas handed over their branding to their staff and told them to communicate with millions of customers and then don’t back them? Neither staff (nor customers who DIDN’T take offence) will be particularly impressed with that one. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

By the way, if it was Virgin there’d be no issue. We know that Virgin’s brand is cheeky and naughty. Some would still complain but the “OMG Qantas” reaction would be less obvious with a brand that tries edgier approaches.  Qantas positions itself to with an impossibly high standard, as do many companies trying to be all things to all people, so the consumers hold them to these standards. It’s NOT possible to have a human voice AND be perfect to all people.  Plus there’s a lot of unresolved social tension regarding their hypocritical branding of supporting Australia (I Still Call Australia Home, Wallabies etc) vs sacking Australian pilots, which will encourage the backlash further, particularly amongst demographics that are suffering from their jobs/businesses being taken offshore and so on. An opportunity to put the boot in?

I’ll be on ABC Drivetime at 4:10pm tonight talking about this too… well, that’s the plan.

For me personally – tricky one. I try to look at the “intent” behind an action if I am policing/moderating that community. Was it done consciously or unconsciously to cause harm? No probably not. I see no disrespect here, not even as bad a blonde jokes. Could another person take offence or being influenced to be disrespectful. Yes definitely – it’s not a “safe” topic and some people will always take things too far. Are the critics over reacting. Perhaps not. Humour is such a challenging area – our values are confronted by humour, do we laugh or be outraged? If Radike is free and clear (not sponsored by Qantas) to take offence and chooses not to, I’d let the community debate hotly it’s own value systems, let those that see humour, be happy, and those that don’t be outraged. I would not scold staff publicly, nor would overly apologise (it’s disrespectful to apologise to Radike Samo – if he didn’t take offence, that’s telling him he should!).

Video Hat tip: Mike Lazarus ACT @GLComputing