Part 1 : Early Efforts and the Ash Cloud
KLM has been active in social media since late 2009. Ever since, people have been asking us about our social media strategy. We’re pleased about all the attention. Unfortunately, though, we can’t answer all questions individually. So, we thought we’d write a short series of blogs about it instead.
Back in the summer of 2009, a small group of department representatives gathered each week to discuss the rise of social networks and how they related to KLM. Rather than blindly setting up accounts, thinking, “We have to do something with social media”, we took the time to observe, listen and learn. We noticed how travellers were exchanging experiences with each other, how the media were listening in, and how online sentiment was having an increasing impact on consumer choices and brand reputations. We concluded that, by becoming an active part of the online dialogue, we could increase brand engagement, strengthen our reputation, and ultimately sell more tickets. It was in these early days that we created the solid base that is now one of the keys to our success: cooperation.
The ash cloud
We started off small. I recall many evenings when I would sit on my couch at home with my smartphone, share information and answer questions on the @KLM Twitter account. At the same time, we ran a short pilot study with this blog and set up a Facebook page. We were pretty much learning by doing, so we kept a low profile – until, a single event changed everything: the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.
When the Icelandic volcano erupted in April 2010, much of Europe’s air space was covered by a vast ash cloud, and the authorities decided to shut down air traffic. Hundreds of flights were cancelled and tens of thousands of passengers around the world were stranded. Soon our call centres, ticket offices and transfer desks could no longer handle the huge stream of inquiries coming in. Desperate for information, many stranded passengers and their friends and relatives decided to turn to social media – Facebook and Twitter in particular. KLM responded promptly by using these channels to provide regular status updates and offer as many answers as possible. I sent the first tweets from my phone, but not much later we needed a small team to handle the ever increasing volumes.
On the third day of the closure, KLM started performing a number of successful test flights to demonstrate that it was safe to fly. The following day, the authorities approved a limited number of flights and European air traffic slowly started to pick up again. As operations resumed, KLM faced the challenge of rebooking 50,000 stranded passengers around the globe. In line with our “just do it” mentality, we decided to use social media as much as we could, and our timelines quickly flooded. A team of some 150 volunteers from different departments started working around the clock, helping thousands on Facebook and Twitter to continue their journey ASAP. Those were crazy days. We got little sleep and basically lived on pizza deliveries and takeaway Chinese.
From the ash cloud we learned that, as a company, we could tackle a crisis situation effectively using social media. We also learned that the public really appreciated this form of communication. Very simply, there was no way back – and that didn’t go unnoticed among our senior management. Not long thereafter our CEO, Peter Hartman, gave us the green light to set up a Social Media Hub and formalise our efforts.