FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

Summary: There was a fairly major example of how external social networks can spin out of control last week: Virgin Atlantic (which despite its name is a major international airline that flies all over the world) have a FaceBook presence, with 6,944 members as I write this.Last week Virgin got a lot of publicity for firing '13 flight attendants for criticising the airline's flight safety standards and describing its passengers as "chavs" on a social networking website'.


Chav There was a fairly major example of how external social networks can spin out of control last week: Virgin Atlantic (which despite its name is a major international airline that flies all over the world) have a FaceBook presence, with 6,944 members as I write this.

Last week Virgin got a lot of publicity for firing '13 flight attendants for criticising the airline's flight safety standards and describing its passengers as "chavs" on a social networking website'. (Chavs is 'a mainly derogatory slang term in the United Kingdom for a person whose lifestyle, branded casual clothing (especially if counterfeit), speech and/or mannerisms are perceived to be common, proletarian and vulgar. 'Chav' is often used as a stereotype to refer to white, poorly educated, aggressive youths, but youth and aggression are not the defining attributes of a 'chav'. The term is similar to America's 'white trash' stereotype).

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said: "There is a time and a place for Facebook. But there is no justification for it to be used as a sounding board for staff of any company to criticise the very passengers who pay their salaries."

"We have numerous internal channels for our staff to feed back legitimate and appropriate issues relating to the company."

Virgin Atlantic (one of my favorite airlines) seem to have fallen into the classic trap of forgetting that FaceBook is a public forum - looking at their online presence there I see a cocktail of different marketing communication focuses, some slightly irritating, and not much in the way of building a relationship with me.

Searching for governance, I found their FaceBook Terms of Use located on the Virgin Atlantic site. As a consumer who uses Virgin for international travel I just 'became a fan' and essentially agreed to have an ongoing conversational relationship with the company. (I already get special offer emails broadcast to me). This should be pretty classic 'external collaboration with your customers and partners' strategy and tactics for Virgin.

There's some mission statement bragging, links to new Virgin commercials, tie ins with the new James Bond film, flight special offers, a Branson attack on British Airways and a suggestion you photograph your Virgin socks wherever you go. No obvious way for me to get involved unless I want to post to the discussion forums: Virgin take note of how others are engaging their customers to get involved and make your group in FaceBook 'sticky'.

By creating an international public forum people can essentially talk about anything within Virgins' FaceBook discussion boards. Clearly it's not a good idea to have jaded staff discussing their perception of passengers and safety processes in these areas, but external customers can pretty much say what they want...

The public firing of staff around this brought a lot of negative publicity. It's a great example of the power vacuum that happens in companies that don't have coherent internal networks. There is a yinyang relationship between a well organized internal network (where the fired flight attendants should have been allowed to whine and grumble, and also been given guidance) and the outward facing social network, where Virgin's high standards of customer service should apply to promptly commune with customer questions and concerns as well as enjoy the 'fan' status conferred on them by members of their group.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Collaboration, Legal, Networking, Social Enterprise


Oliver Marks leads the Global Digital Enterprise Team at HP, having previously provided seasoned independent consulting guidance to companies on effective planning of business strategy, tactics, technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models that make best use of modern collaborative and social networking tools to achieve their business goals.

These are Oliver's views and not those of his employer HP.

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  • So wrong

    This is just so , so , so, so-o-o-o-o-o-o wrong on so many different levels

    The employees should be approached privately by the company via the internet Facebook site

    NOT reproached PUBLICLY

    I will think twice from now on about supporting ANY of Mr Bransons "endeavours"

    He has missed such a great opportunity to capitalize on the potential of the Internet I could almost feel sorry for him....but he doesnt deserve any
  • RE: FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

    i do not see the difference between the description of the "chavs" and the employees who posted the inconsiderate messages. I do agree that a company of any size should manage their "message/brand" when using social networking. If a company chooses to engage in social media make sure you are doing it right...manage your network by developing a department within the company or hiring a consultant.

    Available for comments:
    Jack - http://www.spotzero.com OR jm@spotzero.com
    @jackinthebean - twitter
  • RE: FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

    It's difficult to know exactly what was said by whom in this case when most of us only get to read things second-hand (at best). But Virgin's actions show that they, at least, were unhappy with what was said.

    This is a good example of how social networks need us to adopt new social norms. To us, Facebook feels as though we are in an exclusive group of our friends but in reality we're in perhaps the most public space possible. When we discuss things we're not having a private conversation but a very public one.

    I've written some more about this and about how we need to adopt new social manners in social networks like Facebook, if anybody is interested:


    • Strangeness

      I am not sure this has anything to do with the internet. I will not spend my money in a place where the staff insult me. Very foolish action for the business and the staff in particular. I used to work in a restaurant and while we all bitched about customers in many many ways, it would never be in their presence or to their hearing or seeing. We let off steam, and damaged no one in the process.
      It is a question of how mannerless people have become that they thought they could get away with this. Now they can go find some other enterprise where customers are in such plentiful supply that they can get away with treating them like dirt. If they can ...
  • It's not FaceBook, it's Facebook... -_-... geez... nt

  • "Others"

    Excellent article, but one question:

    Who are those "others" that are engaging their customers through Facebook that Virgin should be learning from? Some examples would be helpful.
  • RE: FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

    I don't think any company should "lower" their standards by allowing or offering "feedback" on public forums such as Facebook or MySpace. These forums are mainly populated by teenagers with nothing else to do but surf the net and many act irresponsible and childish (because they are children) in their postings. Any company worth investing in should avoid these public outlets or be prepared to suffer the consquences from unsubstantiated postings by a bunch of teenagers. My advice to Virgin is get out of the public forums and use your website feedback tools for your legitimate customers.
    • Irony?

      I hope you're being ironic.
  • RE: FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

    quite simply, if these employees violated the 'code of conduct' or 'employee handbook' or some other such device that they agree to follow by posting publicly then VA had every right to fire them, however, I do agree that people of decorum and taste should know better.

  • Both sides were "wrong"!

    The employees should know better than to stereotype customers in public and the company should know that by acting within the context of safety they are exposing themselves to charges of a "coverup".
  • Good realization...

    A company SHOULD have a good internal "forum" that
    could be used instead of an external public forum such
    as facebook. Far too many companies just don't see
    the light in such avenues for human frustrations.
    People will be people, you will NEVER change that.
    But, you can cater to it in a civilized and modern way
    that allows for channeling of problems without hanging
    them into the public view. The proverbial "water
    cooler" just ain't where it used to be...

    This is not excuse for the fired employees, but rather
    a slap on the wrist of management who is not up to
    date with how humans will interact, and how to handle
    all types of interactions.
  • RE: FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

    The company chose a "public" forum which was a bad choice. The employees chose to criticize the company on the companies public forum acting very much like the "Chavs" they derided. Said employees were then chastised/fired on same public/company forum?

    This shows a lack of knowledge on both the company's and employees parts. Although the company could have handled it better I see them under no obligation to do so in this particular case (except for public relations) and I hold no sympathy for those "ex" employees.

    Here in the US an employee can be fired for what they say on-line. From work our e-mail can be and often is monitored. What you say and do while "on the clock" belongs to the company.

    What we say and do on-line belongs to the public as well and may exist long after we are gone and forgotten. One very good reason for a company not choosing a public forum. At least, in most cases, they can't hold our heirs responsible...unless you are the RIAA, or MPAA.
  • RE: FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

    Just exactly where is the line that I have to toe as an employee? If I am at work I should not be making comments about my boss. But what if I am off work and at home? If the complany policy is to support a specific outside political organization, can I work for a different organization?

    Today companys seem to believe that they can demand or prohibit specific employee actions simply because they write the paycheck. I have heard several managers say "Well if you don't like it, you can always quit!" I have also heard other employees say "What I do after hours is none of your business!"

    Both sides have valid points. So I ask again, where is the line between employer and employee? And what is reasonable for both?
  • RE: FaceBook Virgin Airlines Fiasco

    For staff of a company to insult their customers in a public forum is unforgivable. In these hard times how on earth can they promote the business by advertising then criticise the very same customers they are relentlessly marketing. When staff get to be so stupid, they need to go!