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What not to do, American Airlines Edition

Nov 5, 2009

I’ve often written here regarding social media, and the ‘world’ it inhabits, one of interaction, where instead of carefully choosing interactions with a mind for secrecy, The Incompetence of American Airlineswe carefully choose secrets with a mind for interaction. Obviously not everything can be ‘open’ (to do so would in many cases be more confusing than helpful, as twitter or facebook can often show us) but then the old fortress mentality is both unattractive to public opinion and in this time of rapid advance, often harmful in its effects on business practice itself.

Enough from me, though, check this out:

A FEW MONTHS AGO, I wrote an article expressing my displeasure with American Airlines‘ hideous online presence. I also spent some time mocking up a redesigned version of their website. To my surprise, a user experience designer at AA.com emailed me an amazing response describing some of the design problems faced in large corporations.

An hour after I posted the response, American Airlines fired Mr. X.

Read the whole thing (it isn’t long.) It is sad, perhaps, to have a non-disclosure agreement which prevents what the author suggests is a needed innovation. Sometimes business reality prevents much being done as a result of even helpful commentary from customers, and often for large corporations a comments box is open so that ‘cranks’ (people who are irate) have some place to vent.

But when things are genuinely wrong, or could be better, it is not unreasonable to interact with customers. Granted sometimes this conversation can be harmful rather than helpful – anyone who has seen an order messed up by mistake at say, McDonald’s, can recall how temper mostly just serves to cause the problem to be resolved slower. Especially this is true when the person who receives the criticism has no power to act on it. It would be rather pointless to take the cashier to task in McDonalds for the poor quality of their ketchup.

It is our sincere hope – and we think it is for many other companies – that Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other venues can be a place for conversations like the one Mr. X got fired for.

Of course, to be fair, the size of the company matters (as bureaucracy tends to scatter power rather than delegate it) and a large company, like AA often has little choice but to keep following its present policies. Internal politics, arcane rules, and just plain human limitation all play roles.

All in all, the new landscape is difficult for those who have the most power in it – in mass media, and in money, it is large corporations. But their method is largely impersonal, and even when their icons work, it still feels like puppetry.

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