Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jack in the Box: Digital Activism and Corporate Reputation

The recent case of Jack the Cat that went missing on an American Airlines flight has seen its fair share of attention in New Media and from there on to the traditional media. But what are the reasons behind AA’s relentless efforts to cope with digital activism?

It started when American Airlines lost Karen Pascoe's cat Jack on a flight to L.A. from New York. Jack escaped his kennel after being checked in and its owner was noticed shortly after that the pet went missing. Pascoe was forced to take a later flight after her search at the N.Y. airport came up empty. She was assured that she’d get a phone call as soon as Jack was found. Despite numerous phone calls and emails, Pascoe claims AA finally contacted her only 66 hours later just to tell her that the pet hasn’t yet been found. Imagine that meanwhile back in New York everybody was busy with Irene.
This is when a Facebook page was created for the missing cat, which gained rapidly a consistent number of outraged supporters. The outrage also spread to Twitter, where the #findjackthecat hashtag was created.
Noticing the build-up (at this moment the Facebook page has over 13,000 supporters), AA responded and apologized, launching a real, most probably costly, search & rescue mission in order to find the cat. The company even engaged the New York Port Authority in its mission and used dog-tracking services in order to find the missing pet. In the meantime, the airline updates its Facebook account with its efforts to find Jack and its being tweeting actively in the matter.
The story has caught enough round-the-world attention and some even may consider that the AA frenzy is getting quite hilarious. Indeed, the attention for this case might be considered surprising, but giving its background it is likely that AA is overcompensating after criticism of its almost absent engagement with audiences through New Media. STELLA Service ranked American Airlines last in a list of airlines in terms of response time to customer tweets and calls during Hurricane Irene.
But are the AA efforts truly justified when considering the potential damages? Are these outraged supporters going to give in to the call to action and actually stop using the AA services? Probably not.
Malcolm Gladwell argues in an editorial for the New Yorker (“Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted”) that social media is not in fact “the” platform for activism and that social networks activism does not produce real social change. Firstly, because real activism can only be achieved by relying on the “strong ties” of friendship and family which connect activists among each other, while social media platforms are built around “weak” or “loose ties”, and second because effective activism requires hierarchical structure, not something to be found in the diffuse structure of social media networks.
“Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.”
In fact, might seem that the effects of digital activism actually tend to oppose to those initially desired, according to Gladwell. The feeling of completion, or maybe “will to powerlessness” as defined by Geert Lovink (2008), that we get from joining a Facebook group cause is enough to make us think we have acted, leaving no room for real activism.
“The results of networking often are a rampant will to powerlessness that escapes the idea of collective progress under the pretext of participation, fluidity, escapism, and over-commitment.” (Geert Lovink, 2008)
Bottom line, to Gladwell the only way to get people to adhere to your cause is by not asking too much of them.
“Social networks are effective at increasing participation — by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires”
Although maybe AA has nothing to fear regarding immediate high impact actions, its efforts are justified by the fact that in the long run bad reputation can have a strong outcome on its business.
According to John Bell, Managing Director of Global 360° Digital Influence Practice – Ogilvy's global social media marketing and communications practice, it is already established that consumers are taking most of their product and brand relevant topics online, meaning that word of mouth and peer-to-peer recommendations trend to be the main information channels. It is in this context that Google becomes a reputation manager and the main focus is drawn to search results. Companies must now practice effective search reputation management in order to control the information to which consumers ultimately base their purchasing decisions on and there is also a trend in developing tools in this direction, like Google's Me on the Web service.

Even at this moment Jack the Cat scores in the top 3 Google results when searching for “American Airlines + Cat”.

• Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments. New York: Routledge, 2008.
• Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” New Yorker Magazine, October 4, 2010.

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