By John D. Stoll
My wife and I bought a farmhouse on three acres in 2014, and I've had poison ivy since. A tiny itch grows into a big, nasty rash that drives me to smear bentonite clay on my face or plunge into a tub of oatmeal.
Social-media backlash is as pesky as poison ivy. Hashtags morph into trending topics, and before you know it a storm of comments, pictures or memes flood Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines all over the world. Companies and agencies that once had time to react are now pressured to immediately respond if they hope to find a bit of relief.
Boeing's safety issues provide a fresh case study into how much havoc social media is wreaking on the good, old-fashioned corporate crisis. Who exactly has control when a social-media firestorm breaks out? Is it a bunch of experts and strategists hunkered down in war rooms, or is it anybody with a smartphone?
People like Jason DeAlessi vote for Option B. The 22-year-old digital-strategy consultant knows his Twitter account has limited reach, but he's used it to call out Starbucks, UPS, AT&T and President Trump. On Wednesday morning, he used it to demand that airlines, regulators and Boeing "do the right thing for your passengers and ground the #737MAX8."
Hours later, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered airlines to stop flying Boeing's MAX airplanes in U.S. airspace (no, Mr. DeAlessi isn't taking credit). Sprout Social, a social-media software firm, estimates at least 870,000 tweets were posted about Boeing's 737 MAX over the past week, a majority of which trended negative.
Investor sentiment hasn't been kind. Shares of Boeing have lost nearly 15% in total market value since the end of last week.
Boeing and the FAA took their share of criticism, but airlines felt the brunt of the onslaught from concerned passengers who've grown all too used to tagging carriers in bitter tweets and angry Facebook posts. Airline executives, who compete in an industry with lots of options and high expectations, felt the heat.
Norwegian Airlines, which uses 737 MAX planes, beefed up its staff responding to social-media posts about rebookings, aircraft schedules and the European Union's decision to ground Boeing's planes before the U.S. took action. Bjørn Kjos, the airline's CEO, actually echoed the general public's misgivings, telling customers in a recorded message that Norwegian would send the bill for any disruptions to Boeing.
Incidents where passengers have been stranded or mistreated, including a 2017 viral video of United Continental Airlines' forcible removal of a doctor from a flight, have shaped the way executives approach online communications. United CEO Oscar Munoz later said "it's a new era with regard to social media and it's just something we have to adapt to and accept."
For evidence, consider one 20-minute stretch on Thursday afternoon: United had responded to one tweet per minute, addressing issues ranging from lost bags to bad meals.
Nike's recent sneaker blowout, Chipotle Mexican Grill's E. coli problems, or accusations of racism in Starbucks stores have proven that most companies have fewer places to hide when a crisis emerges. Jamie Gilpin, chief marketing officer at Sprout Social, says consumer expectations for immediate accountability and transparency have gone from virtually nonexistent to ubiquitous, largely due to the reach and intensity of social media.
For decades, consumers had to rely on more sluggish methods. Phone calls, letters, emails were often solitary and failed to rally a critical mass of anger. Only if the mass media or lawmakers or lawyers got involved did pressure build on companies to admit a problem or take action.
Ms. Gilpin said "when the brands were still in control, they could decide if they were going to respond. Now they have to respond."
A single tweet like Mr. DeAlessi's -- attracting more than 1,000 impressions, according to Twitter -- was a drop in the digital ocean. Still, he thinks it's worth it. "My goal is to try to demonstrate to these large corporations that there are people who care and to maximize the number of voices they hear," he said.
Agnes Grossman, a 48-year-old attorney in Chicago, tweeted for a boycott of Boeing's 737 MAX with a similar objective. "Even a single voice is part of a bigger chorus, and that can result in positive change," she told me.
The circumstances surrounding the 737 MAX are complex, to be sure. For several days after an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed following takeoff, the FAA and Boeing said they couldn't identify performance issues that warranted a broad grounding. Wednesday's course correction came after FAA officials said new data indicated that crash resembled another recent tragedy involving the same model plane.
In an interview broadcast on CNBC following the decision, acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell said the agency wasn't bowing to public concerns.
Many critics were pointing to other transportation regulators' decision to ground the planes as reason for the U.S. to act, but Mr. Elwell said "we don't make decisions about grounding aircraft or regulating or even shutdowns or aircraft without actionable data."
Still, Washington's top Twitter fan didn't waste time. President Trump pre-empted the FAA's own announcement by making a statement on camera and tweeting the clip out. Sprout Social's data indicated that the volume of Boeing-related Twitter mentions tapered off on Wednesday, and the tone became more positive.
Sprout's Ms. Gilpin said this chorus equates to "a real-time data-feed of sentiment" that everyone can see. When new information arises, the public immediately responds.
Lea Conner, an attorney in Spokane, Wash., who follows aviation closely, had been tweeting about the Boeing crisis before the grounding and is convinced the pressure mattered.
"That's what made the difference," Ms. Conner said. "It wasn't just one person, it was almost like direct democracy. It's unfortunate it was social media, but it's all we have."
What she's saying is that corporate chieftains are going to have to be prepared for the next small itch that turns into a #BigNastyRash.
Write to John D. Stoll at email@example.com