The Sellout & Social Media’s Implications on Customer Power

The last book I read was The Sellout by Paul Beatty. A contemporary Man Booker award winning novel addressing race and class issues in America through satire, it was a very enjoyable read. It follows the narrator’s efforts to put the town Dicken’s back on the map – where it had previously been removed out of embarrassment. Reintroducing slavery and segregation, the novel begins and ends at the Supreme Court and is the most politically focussed fictional novel I think I’ve read. Reading contemporary satire was something I really enjoyed and want to pursue further, particularly as it provides education and insight into topical issues in America, furthering my uni studies.

In marketing/publicity news, I’ve been following reactions of United Airlines’ decision to refuse a customer on board whilst wearing leggings. The reactions seem to be in two categories, those arguing about what right a company has to tell a woman how to wear and the issues of double standards for dress codes between genders, and those who criticise the airline’s handling of the issue over social media and their choice of statement regarding the complaint. I’m more interested in the second issue and what we can learn from it. It’s a clear example of customer power being elevated through social media.

tweet 1

Previously, customer complaints were treated proportionally to the perceived power of the customer – a wealthy looking adult is going to get treated better when complaining to a store manager in person than a young teenager reporting a problem. But social media levels out the playing field for customers and demand companies treat every customer equally as one social media account can reach the same effects as others, even with fewer followers. Should a company fail to provide an adequate level of customer care through their response and the tweet is picked up on by other accounts, it can be worldwide news in only a few hours – with high profile accounts such as celebrities jumping on board, as happened with United Airlines. Whilst social media can heighten a brands publicity and outreach, it also creates a threat, the response of that company is under scrutiny to all, and subject to potential magnification should the public not like it.

The incriminating tweet now has over 6k likes and came from a verified account with 34k followers. However, the need for many followers is not necessary to get public attention for your negative experiences with a company. Many low profile accounts experiencing the same problems get found from other users searching for similar experiences, and the increase of content creation for journalism by magazine companies such as glamour and those on snapchat means many ‘journalists’ are desperate to find stories they can elevate into pieces of journalism; negative customer experience amongst teenagers with the Kylie Cosmetics brand have caused headlines in female magazines and on Snapchat. Content quality has decreased under the trend of blogging, resulting in the often unpredictable picking up of what were previously small issues with brands. This paired with social media has elevated the importance of company’s PR teams and their actions online.

If there’s something PR teams can learn from United Airlines, it’s that responses to customer complaints, particularly ones that address a bigger issue such as a company’s idea of dress codes need to be dealt with carefully. With 140 twitter characters, every word counts and when unsure, workers need to consult colleagues for a unified response from the company and make sure each tweet represents that company’s image and promotes their values through their response. Secondly, if things are going in the customers favour, take things away from public scrutiny. Ask for the customer to private message, email or phone you. And thirdly, clarify everything asap. The longer the message is drawn out, the more attention it’s getting, with the public eye siding with who they perceiveis one of them – not the big bad company. Work out what the customers issue is and why your company was right – both technically and morally. Finally, use your social media to further the issue – United Airlines could have followed up with a tweet about why their company’s dress codes weren’t inappropriate – particularly as air hostesses receive a lot of attention in regards to how many companies force them to dress.

As it was, United Airlines response failed to protect company image, a clumsy, fragmented response crashing into global attention.


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