When retailers run afoul of their customers’ sensitivities on social media, what’s the best way to go about things? Should brands admit fault and apologize right off the bat, or should they walk away from their Twitter accounts to take a few deep breaths while passions are high?
Or – as Australia’s Victorian Taxi Association did this week – should they just keep trudging through the muck and mire of legitimate consumer complaints?
The BBC reported that it all began with a fairly innocuous idea from the VTA, a Melbourne, Australia-based organization and one of many regional taxi licensors around the world that are feeling the crunch from Uber’s continuous expansion. The plan was for the VTA to use a new Twitter handle (@yourtaxis) and fresh hashtags (#YourTaxis and #TaxiYourWay) to ask followers and Twitter users at large to share “their taxi stories.” And while the VTA may have been a bit naïve in expecting heartwarming or enlightening tales about flagging cabs down in the rain, its past customers had no trouble dispelling them of the notion.
In short order, tweets came pouring into the @yourtaxis profile about all of the less-than-savory experiences riders have had while taking rides in VTA cabs. Not only did tweets explain unsanitary conditions and directionally challenged drivers, but some Twitter users also levied claims of physical assault and verbal abuse of female riders.
Suffice to say, the reaction was not what the VTA was expecting, although when pressed for a response to the overwhelmingly negative tone of responses from customers, the BBC explained that @yourtaxis did something strange – they claimed that it was their plan to raise these issues (in this incredibly messy way) all along.
“Not a PR fail,” the VTA said in a response to a tweet claiming their #YourTaxis campaign had backfired. “We wanted to start a convo about @YourTaxis and offer an avenue to tell us what you think, which we have achieved.”
If that was truly the VTA’s goal, then the next several dozen tweets posted to its timeline prove that the campaign was a resounding – if not an entirely humbling – success. However, rather than directly damaging VTA’s brand, the Twitter campaign instead merely highlighted those customers that already lowered their opinions of VTA and taxis in general. Looking at it that way, one could think that while the #YourTaxis push was poorly conceived, its execution didn’t do any more harm than was already there.
That had to wait until Nov. 11.
Known as Remembrance Day, a memorial of the cessation of operations in World War I, Nov. 11 holds a special significance in Australia as a significant identity-building event in the nation’s history. In that context, The Guardian explained, it both makes sense and is highly questionable why, after taking blow after blow during the #YourTaxis campaign, VTA would go back to Twitter and attempt to wrap its brand up in the Australian flag in as tone-deaf a way as possible – a tweet that claimed 600,000 veterans and widows take VTA cabs to and from treatments every day, sandwiched by hashtags, of course.
If the power of social media can be seen in the ease with which customers can now communicate with brands, it should also extend to how fast negative responses can force executives to release public apologies. VTA CEO David Samuel did just that on Thursday (Nov. 12).
"Unfortunately, the YourTaxis campaign concept and its delivery did not match our intention,” Samuel said in a statement. “We were aware of many of the issues that passengers face but the campaign concept and delivery showed us the true extent of their concerns. We take full responsibility for the campaign and will be undertaking a full review of our strategy. As a result we have made the decision to part ways with our agency."
Brands beware when taking to Twitter – gone are the one-way advertising channels that still maintain engagement with consumers. The new normal is platforms that encourage conversations instead of announcements, but when embattled brands like VTA step up to the podium, they better get ready to cede some speaking time to the rest of the floor, even if they don’t like what they hear.