By Hrishikesh Dubey
Social media is a powerful tool that has increasingly become a preferred channel for people to voice opinions. But like all good things, this too comes with a dark side. Sometimes things can take an unexpected and unnecessary turn. And not all opinions are always in good taste.
In the most recent case of social media commentary-gone-wrong, India’s largest telecom company Airtel got embroiled in an unfortunate and unnecessary battle. The controversy unfolded when a customer raised a complaint on Twitter and received a response from Shoaib, an Airtel service representative. Noticing that he’s from another religion, the customer made a rather inflammatory remark and demanded to be serviced by a Hindu representative.
This tweet from the customer was received by another service representative named Gaganjot who, as per protocol, went on to respond to the customer. This change in the representative was seen as a sign that Airtel had acquiesced to the discriminatory request. Screenshots of the exchange (see above) soon went viral on social media, creating a PR nightmare for the company.
But like any great brand, Airtel showed a resolute approach to the entire controversy. The company soon released an official statement, and it was perhaps the most effective response to a sensitive situation that had seemingly spiralled out of control. In a statement posted on Twitter, Airtel took control of the narrative.
Did Airtel really bow down to a discriminatory request? Maybe you should read this. pic.twitter.com/Mr7b8Pgrci
— airtel India (@airtelindia) June 20, 2018
Interestingly, the statement did not contain an apology. The company sought to shift the focus to its customer-centricity and processes, by highlighting that the service request was automatically transferred from one representative to the next. When Shoaib was busy with another service request, the customer’s discriminatory request was transferred to the next available representative (Gaganjot). As a dedicated customer rep, Gaganjot was focused on solving the customer’s query, which is exactly what he set out to do.
The statement highlighted how this automatic reassignment process was misconstrued to mean that the company had taken a conscious call to bow down to discrimination. Instead of writing a grovelling apology, Airtel put itself on the front foot by stating that the company itself is blind to religion. It brought India’s larger issue to the forefront – we are quick to outrage, and we are quick to organise ourselves along religious lines. But after Airtel’s strong response, the controversy all but died down, with Twitter moving on to find the next thing to outrage about.
Airtel’s response makes for an interesting PR case study. They did quite a few things right. To begin with, they took their time to respond. Instead of a half-baked response early on, the team took time to come up with a considered statement. Secondly, the statement was strongly worded. Many PR statements often end up looking like corporate speak, full of vague sentences and unclear intent. And thirdly, the company didn’t apologise.
The biggest takeaway from the statement was how the company stressed upon its values, and highlighted that it has always trained its team to not look at customers through the lens of religion, ethnicity, or caste. Given that Airtel, as a company, serves more than 280 million customers, they have the credibility to back that claim.
All told, Airtel has left behind some very important lessons in marketing that many brands, who face such situations on social, can follow.
Hrishikesh Dubey is an Analyst at Qrius.