Q&A with Cathay Pacific social media head Dennis Owen: Live video is an opportunity and a risk for airlines

Dennis OwenDennis Owen has worked for Cathay Pacific for 30 years in a number of different roles, from brand marketing to sales to managing cargo, to his currently job as group manager of social media.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks at Socialbakers‘ Engage event in Bali, Owen talks about what it takes to handle social media for an airline, integrating crisis communications with social, the opportunity and risk of live video, the value of social media metrics, and the potential of chat bots.

Structurally, where does social media sit in the company?

Right now it’s in marketing and in corporate communications, so it sits across both. I have two people in my team in corporate communications doing brand protection, and two people in marketing are doing the brand promotions side.

As social media head of an airline, you must have one of the most stressful jobs in communications. What are the faculties you need to do your job?

Social media is certainly the most unusual job I’ve had in the company in that you don’t own anything, but you ‘re involved in everything; I’m involved in lots of different departments and yet I sit in one department.

You have to have the ability to manage up and down and sideways, and be tactful about what you’re trying to do. And what we’re trying to do is create a more customer centric airline. And that involves going into departments where social isn’t there yet, such as operations, call centres, and potentially sales.

Social media really started out as a marketing platform. It sat in marketing for a long time. My role has been to take pieces of the social media function out of marketing and put them in corporate communications. One is crisis communications. The next big project is social customer care, taking it out of marketing and putting it with the customer service centre.

This job involves a lot of talking, a lot of educating to get buy-in to move the company forward faster than we have in the past.

Dennis Owen presenting about crisis communications and social media at Engage 2016

Dennis Owen presenting about crisis communications and social media at Engage 2016

Sounds like you need the skills of a diplomatic to get where you want social media to be at Cathay…

I’m not knocking the departments. This is new to them. Not everyone is social savvy. It’s a complicated issue. It’s evolved so fast that it’s hard for people outside of the discipline to be able to fully understand it.

Which brands stand out for you in how they use social media?

Southwest Airlines tweetSouthwest Airlines [read about their social business philosophy here] and Jet Blue. Both have around-the-clock social media teams that cover customer service, marketing and PR, and have advanced social listening capabilities.

How does that compare to the scale of Cathay Pacific’s social team and capabilities?

Cathay Pacific's Twitter profile

Cathay Pacific’s Twitter profile

We’re not there yet. When it comes to customer care I want us to get to 24-7. Whatever it takes, however many people, that’s the biggest issue for me. We are an airline, we operate 24-7, and in this day and age social media is not a 9-5 operation. Some brands put opening hours for Twitter. For me, you might as well take that down. No one is going to read that when they tweet at you, they don’t care. That’s your problem to deal with, not theirs.

Where is Cathay Pacific with crisis communications and how it fits with social media?

That’s primarily what I’ve been focusing on for the last year. We have a separate tool kit for crisis comms, which is 1-4 in terms of the severity of scenarios and what you do in those situations. When companies have a crisis situation, how you communicate as a brand may end up being more important than what you do and what actually happened. That’s why it’s so important for brands to be prepared around social media.

Who produces the content for Cathay’s social channels?

Cathay's 'Life Well Travelled' campaign by McCann

Cathay’s ‘Life Well Travelled’ campaign

It’s now a combination of teams. Previously, it was done purely by the marketing team. But now depending on the story my team will do it as well. If it’s more of a company story around, say, the retiring of the 747, that’s more of an internal company story so that will come from corporate communications. Activity around Life Well Travelled [Cathay Pacific’s current brand platform, which launched in January last year] and the new Cathay Dragon [the newly rebranded Dragonair], that will be done by marketing. Social media is a blending of marketing and corporate communications, and it’s getting closer and closer all the time.

So how do you keep abreast of the fast changing nature of social media, and the constant tweaking of algorithms that you need to be aware of?

Dennis Owen on LinkedIn

Dennis Owen on LinkedIn

Firstly, you have to be passionate about it. I’m a millennial in a non-millennial’s body. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, SnapChat, FoursquareInstagram and Vine, and I keep tabs on all of these things. I read a lot of articles and books on social media, so I can see how as a discipline it’s changing. I tend to be looking three to five years out, and try to keep the company in the direction I think things are changing.

That said, I think social media takes its twists and turns that we can’t predict. A year ago, we wouldn’t have even thought about live video and how to deal with it. There’s a lot down the road that we’ll have to deal with, and I have a roadmap in my head of where we need to go. Some are projects that we won’t start right away. You have figure out the priorities and work on those first.

You mentioned live video, which for an airline could pose a risk as well as be an opportunity. What are your thoughts?

A year ago a film was uploaded to YouTube that showed an emergency landing of a Cathay Pacific flight [from Hong Kong to Los Angeles]. What if this was live video? What do we do?

There are two ways that I look at it – a brand opportunity and a brand risk. On the opportunity side, we’ve done a couple of live videos with great success. With the launch of the new airbus A350, one of our captains showcased that with our first Facebook live video. We had over 600,000 views.

Facebook live

Click to watch Cathay’s Facebook Live film of the A350

We actually started out with Periscope, because it was smaller [the audiences watching] and safer. With Facebook live, we wanted to make sure we had the storyboard [for the film] down as professionally as possible even though it was live.

On the brand protection side, live is something we are currently looking at. We are just now getting wi-fi on airplanes. A350s have it, other airlines have it, and as an industry we need to be looking at live video as part of a crisis communications plan. We can’t wait until it hits. We need to have a plan for it now.

It will be interesting to see how airlines play it. In an emergency, will they leave wi-fi on, or will they turn it off?

What about Cathay Pacific, how will you guys play it?

We’re in the final stages of a review on this. I’m personally of the view that we should leave it [wi-fi] on. These days, it’s down to the customer, it’s in their hands. Social is about openness, honesty and transparency. If you turn wi-fi off in an emergency, I don’t think as a brand you’d ever come out as the good guy. You’ll always look like the bad guy, no matter how you play it.

What are your thoughts on the role of bots and artificial intelligence in social media management?

We’re exploring chat bots right now, and we’re testing one internally. When you think about customer service, a lot of the questions are quite simple to answer. In the future, when someone has an issue in social media, a chat bot will start the conversation and gather the information. If that conversation becomes too complex, then it will be handed over to a person.

Some bots are so fast to respond now that they’ve had to slow down so they look more human. Ultimately, we want people to get their answers as quickly as possible. And if we can use technology to help that, I’m all for it. Personally, when I have an issue I don’t care whether it’s a real person or not, I just want an answer, and quickly.

There’s been a lot of talk in the industry recently about social media metrics, and how useful they really are to brands. What are you thoughts on this?

I think we’ve moved beyond the era of ‘likes’. What’s important to me if we put a post out is the engagement. What are people saying? What sort of conversations are people having? I look at that more than the number of ‘likes’. In the early days of social media, when you were trying to figure out how to measure it, ‘likes’ made a certain amount of sense. It’s about engagement levels now in my view.

But how do you attach engagement to ROI? What does it actually mean when someone is talking about your brand in social media? 

As an industry, we’re still in the early stages of working that out. Because I’ve been in several areas of the company – sales, marketing, cargo and operations – when I see a tweet I look at it through many lenses. There’s a lot of opportunity in what people say and how they say it. For example, we secured a corporate deal from one comment I saw on Instagram. If I was a customer service agent, focusing just on customer service, I probably wouldn’t have picked that up. What I hope to do is train people to look at social media broadly to figure out where the opportunity is, and that could be sales, branding or customer service.

Tell us about how you work with agencies, do you have crisis communications specialists as well as social media specialists?

We have Edelman. We had a crisis communications contract with them, but since I moved into the department we’ve added a social media addendum to that. The next time the contracts are reviewed I want to incorporate that into one full document as my view is social media should never be separate. It comes in underneath crisis communications, it’s not a separate deal. If you don’t handle a crisis well, you will have a social media issue and a crisis issue at the same time. If you do it right it, it will be all around the crisis and social media will be the tool to help you navigate it. We’re now looking for a global crisis communications partner.

MAS logoIt’s hard to look passed Malaysia Airlines when thinking about crisis communications. What do you make of how MAS handled the social media around the disappearance of MH370?

I think they lost control pretty quickly. It’s all about being prepared ahead of time and getting out in front of a crisis. Those first few hours are the most crucial period of time, and that’s something that we are very concerned about. If it’s an issue that we’ve defined as a crisis, we want something out in social media within 20 minutes.

There are sites out there like Flightradar24 on Twitter that focus on airplane emergencies. Anytime there’s any kind of air emergency, it’s on social media within seconds. You have to be quick in terms of your responses. You might not know exactly what’s going on in 20 minutes, and that’s ok. But you need to come out with a statement that says you’re aware of the situation and you’re looking into it. And you need to follow up regularly. People will be watching, and the story will be starting to go viral. The only way to tap into that is to get the truth out as quickly as possible.

Hong Kong Shark Foundation image attacking Cathay Pacific for transporting sharks fin

Hong Kong Shark Foundation image attacking Cathay Pacific for transporting sharks fin

One example of a crisis Cathay Pacific has had to deal with is the accusation that it continues to transport sharks fin. How did the airline deal with this situation?

That was a difficult one because a lot of what you saw wasn’t factual. Over the last year, we’ve turned down every shipment of shark fin. We want to be a carrier that is all about sustainability. In this case, we’re working with shark experts to do the right thing. But at some level we weren’t able to get that message out that we hadn’t been carrying shark fin. So we ended up just banning it. But what we’re doing now versus six months ago is no different, as we weren’t carrying any then either.


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