The Globe and Mail published a story about the effect Twitter had on the events surrounding Tanner Bawn’s wheelchair being broken on an Air Canada flight. (An excellent article, I recommend reading it.) Ironically, Air Canada’s response stands in contrast to David Carroll and his “United Breaks Guitars” experience that led to the viral video smash.
Though both organizations reacted differently, both cases show how large organizations are at a disadvantage when it comes to social media and its expectation of instant turn-around. What’s more, the nimbleness of small businesses allows them to seize opportunities their larger, slower moving competitors might miss.

David Carroll & United Break Guitars

David Carroll is a Halifax musician who witnessed his guitars being thrown around by baggage handlers at O’Hare, resulting in $3,500 of damage. After spending a year seeking compensation (but getting the corporate run around from United), Carroll recorded “United Breaks Guitars,” a song about his experience, and posted a video of it to YouTube.
The response in the social media space was tremendously supportive of Carroll and vicious against United. As word of the video spread, United engaged in discussions on Twitter (as well as other mainstream channels) to explain itself, but the damage had been done to its reputation.

Tanner Bawn and His Wheelchair

Tanner Bawn is a 10 year old boy fighting muscular dystrophy. While on a flight from Vancouver to La Guardia this past Wednesday, his special motorized chair was damaged. While Air Canada took action to fix the chair, they said it would not be ready until Monday.
On learning this, Tanner’s mother tweeted “So. @aircanada killed Tanner’s wheelchair. We’re now stuck at La Guardia. #tutusfortanner”. (#tutusfortanner being a fundraising event held in NYC for Tanner this Friday.) Twitter exploded with support for Tanner.
According to the Globe and Mail, Air Canada did the right things. They immediately provided a manual wheelchair and then an electronic one. Realizing neither would be adequate, they located an all-night repair shop, got Tanner’s chair fixed and returned it the next day. However, they did not communicate this in the spaces where discussions were taking place, allowing damage to be done.

The Real Failures of Air Canada and United Airlines

Even though United’s social media people were monitoring Twitter and responding to comments about the video, they were fighting a battle they’d lost a year ago. The bureaucratic red tape that nearly strangled Carroll is something we can all identify with, and many used United as the target for their pent-up frustration. But let’s not forget that United is simply a bunch of individuals trying to do their jobs within that same bureaucratic red tape—enforcing rules, following policy, doing what they’re told. The failure in quelling the popularity of Carroll’s video doesn’t rest in its social media response, but its inflexible compensation policy its employees had no choice but the follow a year earlier.
As for the Bawns, while the delay is unacceptable, anyone who’s worked in a large organization knows about the forms, approvals and procedures that can take days to complete. While it seems Air Canada made a genuine effort to help, Air Canada failed in not being active in the conversation taking place about them (as I talked about in an earlier blog post).

Why Large Organizations Fail in Social Media Spaces

Though there are exception, large organizations are failing in the social media space due to two things: (1) under-appreciating the importance of social media and (2) their slow-to-change culture.
Failing to Understand the Importance of Social Media
The senior businesspeople running large organization have seen a lot of “the next big thing”s come and go. Social media is still in its infancy and has yet to prove its worth to experienced businesspeople. (Let’s not forget that it was only 10 years ago that e-mail started to see large scale corporate adoption.) As a result, it will be some time before it is adopted in a functional and effective manner on a large scale. (We are seeing plenty of experimentation right now.)
The danger, though, is regardless of a business’s philosophy about social media there are plenty of people using social media to share experiences about businesses. Let’s face it: If a magazine has a negative article about a company, it might affect your opinion. If a friend has a negative experience, it will certainly affect your opinion and you might even pass the story on to other friends.
I have no way of knowing if this is the source of Air Canada’s lack of reaction until after the uproar (see the Globe and Mail article for details), but the result is the same—negative comments about Air Canada dominated the conversation. (See the article for specific suggestions for what Air Canada should have done.) Had Air Canada been more vocal, they could have turned this into a big win in public opinion because it does seem like they went above and beyond to fix the situation.
Large Organizations Are Slow to React and Change
Most individuals in large organizations are unable to react to a situation quickly and independently. Procedures designed to limit the harm a single employee can do also restrict positive outcomes a motivated and intelligent employee can bring about. That is, it relies on the process to produce a positive outcome. While the process might indeed produce excellent results, they take time to complete. We may have grown to grudgingly accept the “We will reply to you email within 5 business days,” we want a reply within the hour on Twitter.
But such a rapid turnaround time for a large business is virtually impossible for all but the most basic and routine of questions. A senior manager with the authority to deal with a firestorm on Twitter certainly doesn’t have the time to do it, but a customer service rep who has the time lacks the authority.
As well, actually trying to change these processes is a process in itself. Whereas senior managers might not realize the important of social media, middle managers might understand but also know how difficult making a change can be, so they don’t bother. This is why most social media efforts come from the grassroots, but runs into roadblocks when people say “Who approved this?”, “Is this in our corporate plan?”, “I should run this up the ladder first.”

Opportunities for Small Business

Small businesses, on the other hand, have an opportunity here. Generally, owners are younger and might appreciate the importance of social media. As well, with a small company, the leader may know and trust someone to handle social media interactions without needing approvals or input, or the leader might handle social media interactions him/herself. This situation allows for much more honest and quicker interaction in the social media space, meeting the expectations of customers and potential customers, and allowing the company to defend its brand if something negative is being said.
Plus, smaller businesses can experiment and change their operations much faster than larger companies. After some experiments and changes, a small business could quickly find their ideal positioning within social media and start attracting a loyal customer base away from their large competitor in the same amount of time it would take that large organization to decide if they should start a Twitter account.
As well, small businesses should be monitoring their larger competition to take advantages of these situations. One should not appear vulture-like or contribute to a flame war, but if a business is not serving the needs of clients, there’s nothing wrong with stating “We’re here and we can help you out.” When you’re mad and at whit’s end, you’ll gladly accept the offer of a helping hand.