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NEWS Last modified on March 15, 2013

Heathrow Airport: How social media can help an airport

Social media Q&A (PART 2): Marc Ellams, head of passenger communications at Heathrow Airport, talks to Airport World about the gateway's approach to social media.

Marc Ellams, head of passenger communications at Heathrow Airport, talks to Airport World about the gateway's approach to social media.

How many people do you have working on social media?

We have a relatively small team and we have three to four people on it at any but we do have the ability to breathe it out if we get a crisis situation.

We've made sure we have enough flexibility to support any issues that we might have, so if we you a severe snow disruption, like we had in 2010, then you need to be able to deal with the demand, because that’s what customers want.

If you have a severe situation like the snow then they want you to solve the problems that they’re having – they’re not so interested in your sexy and engaging content at that moment in time.

How has social media changed the way an airport communicates with its passengers?

Before social media, it was very much the traditional routes of email, telephone into the contact centre, handwritten correspondence, or feedback cards left around the terminal.

With that, you get that delay and there are different levels of response and different validity of feedback, in terms of how the passenger feels. If you can tap into a genuine, emotional response then you’re starting to get to a real view. Also, social media gives you a real perception of how their journey through the airport feels.

If you go home and write something then you’re in a different state of mind to how you are when you’re in the airport.

Social media allows us to capture the stuff that people otherwise wouldn’t necessarily tell us about, but if this is something that is a point of friction on your journey through the airport, then it’s worth us being aware of that.

From our point of view, it’s invaluable. It is a bit of a Pandora’s Box and you have to be ready to deal with it, because there’s potential for it to be overwhelming, if you don’t know what you’re getting into, to suddenly have all this feedback coming at you. But you just have to relax and accept that these issues were always there, you just never had a view of it before.

If you weren’t on social media, those conversations would still be happening, those views would still be out there, you just wouldn’t be involved in it and you would be able to shape the debate, help, or give information to inform opinion, and that’s one of the things we’re really pleased about is the fact that being in this online space lets you deal with misconceptions.

We publish things like infographics around what we do in a snow situation. We always used to get questions like, well if people can fly in Russia in the snow, why can’t we do it here?

Well actually, for us it’s about how busy we are as an airport and our capacity, and so the fact that we can share this stuff and start to see our communities sharing it with each other shows that we’re doing something right.

What are the pitfalls of using social media for an airport?

There is a fear about going into social media and that comes from the fact that you are opening this new channel of communication. You are almost saying: “Here we are. Tell us what you think.”

There’s going to be some negativity in there and that’s the fear. You have to be relatively comfortable with your performance so if you take it back to customer experience, if you get that wrong, they’ll tell you immediately on social media.

That’s a potential pitfall, how comfortable are you with your physical performance? And how comfortable are you in your ability to recover a situation?

For example, if you’re waiting at home for a delivery like a washing machine for example, if it doesn’t turn up, you’re pretty annoyed and wound up.

If they call you and tell you when it will actually be delivered then you’re putting a service recovery plan in place. So, as an airport, you need to be comfortable that you are able to put similar service recovery plans in place.

The other pitfall is making sure that you as a brand can translate your presence into something that works on social media. We’ve a lot of debates about how our corporate brand should be presented on social media because it needs to change.

It’s the people’s channel and if you come in there in a sort of corporate suit then people won’t engage with you, they’re just going to turn off and they won’t talk to you.

You need to translate what you want to say into something compelling. Content is key, ultimately. You have to check it by saying: “Would I want to retweet this? Would I send this to a friend?”

Don’t forget that you want to support your passengers – that should be your fundamental basis of what you’re doing. Tone of voice is important and that is a key skill for the staff that you have working on social media – that ability to tune into the right tone of voice.

In what ways can social media help an airport?


It can help an airport massively in terms of understanding your passengers’ view of their experience passing through the airport. It can help you understand what they’re feeling at every point throughout that journey, which helps you then to find ways to improve. And it gives you an opportunity to engage, and for us, one of the key things it has done is allowed us to get across some of our personality.

It’s taking that large corporation but interacting in a way that makes people think of a 1950s corner shop. That’s what a lot of businesses have struggled with. You can start to be more human and have a relationship with your passengers.

We’re getting there. We’ve got a large amount of people who are regular tweeters with us because they feel they’ve got some resonance with us and I think that’s a great opportunity for airports to tap into.

To read part one of the interview, click here

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Written by @SteveThompsonAM

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