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Over the summer, Virgin America started a risky promotional campaign, encouraging passengers to use its free onboard Wi-Fi service to tweet good vibes about their flying experiences. The San Francisco-based airline identified 120 influential users on Twitter and offered them all free round-trip flights. The comments were overwhelmingly positive, as expected.

But in the business of image making, one nasty post can ripple through the Twitterverse and spoil a whole day. The stakes in social media are higher than with traditional media relations, says Porter Gale, Virgin America’s vice president of marketing. The impact of both positive and negative statements “can easily be amplified because of followers and fans.”

On one recent day, for instance, a semifamous actress named Mackenzie Firgens thanked Virgin Atlantic for the “pretty view to Seattle” and linked her thousands of followers to a picture she took out her window. Stacy Small, who goes by the handle EliteTravelGal, exclaimed: “totally luv my main cabin seat w power, wifi, tv, snax.” But a flier named Darrell Whitelaw snapped a picture of a broken seat that “needs to be fixed.” And AlisonEvents, a wedding and party planner, tweeted about “the worst flight on VirginAmerica”: “plane landed and fire trucks had to rescue us and drive us to the gate. Not awesome.”

The viral nature of social media can turn even the most random, off-the-cuff comment into a broadcast. In the airline world, the most famous example is the case of Kevin Smith, a Hollywood producer with more than a million followers on Twitter. Earlier this year, before the start of a Southwest flight, Smith was told that he was too large for his seat and was asked to vacate the aircraft. He repeatedly and profanely tweeted and blogged about his experience, criticizing Southwest in general for the “fat policy” and the pilot and flight attendant who spoke to him in particular. Even after Southwest apologized, the outrage on Twitter persisted for days.

More and more companies are finding that they must figure out how to deal with the inevitable outburst–sometimes addressing it directly and sometimes ignoring the incident in hopes that the fuss will quickly pass. “There are no rules yet,” says Guy Kawasaki, a tech investor and author well known in social-media circles. “There’s only what works and what doesn’t work.”

Though there’s no way to control what customers and other outsiders are saying, some organizations have imposed policies on Twitter usage for their own employees and affiliates. The NBA is a case in point. During a game last season, the famously outspoken entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, tweeted his irritation at a referee during a game that his team lost: “How do they not call a tech on JR Smith for coming off the bench to taunt our player on the ground?” Ten minutes later, he lambasted the officials again: “Same crew chief from game in Denver where they missed call.”

Days later, after Cuban was slapped with a $25,000 fine for his digital disruption, he poked fun at it. “Can’t say no one makes money from Twitter,” he joked. “The NBA does now.” The episode inspired the NBA to officially forbid all tweeting by players, coaches and owners during games and for 90 minutes before and after.

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Credit: R. Blake Ramick

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, digital marketing

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