How are social media used to handle crisis situation? The example of Heathrow Airport.

November 3, 2014

Written by Niklas Milesi

Snow storm at Heathrow airport (Source: Daily mail)    URL Source:

Snow storm at Heathrow airport (Source: Daily mail)

URL Source:

Snow storm at Heathrow airport (Source: Daily Mail Website)


Snowstorm (Urquhart, 2013), flooding, technical problems, strikes or terrorist threats are some examples of the danger airports are exposed to on a regular basis. Heathrow airport in London (United Kingdom) has on average more than 190.000 daily passenger (Heathrow Airport, 2014a) travelling to and from the airport relying on the operator (Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited, formerly BAA) to experience a smooth and comfortable journey.  This impressive amount of traveller means that if any problem occurs, the risk of a snow-ball effect paralysing traffic is huge and needs to be handled the best possible way.

The aim of this paper is to analyse how companies are using social media platform in crisis situation by taking the example of Heathrow Airport. We will first start by analysing how the development of internet have allowed the emergence of a new form of communication with consumers and how airport operators such as Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited have evolved to better respond to those changes. We will then, with the help of concrete example taken from social media platforms, analyse how the operator has applied some of the theoretical principles toward providing a better response in crisis situation with the help of social media.  


From brochure website to online dialogue

The evolution of the role the Internet has played for airport operators has developed in a parallel way to what has been described by academics publications. At first the Internet was used to create a “brochure ware” website (de Chernatony, 2001). In the case of airports that meant providing standard information such as live information on flights, transport to and from the airport or shops and activities available on site for example. This form of information, often referred to as “Web 1.0” (Chrisodoulides, 2009) has created an asymmetry of information in favour of companies as opposed to consumer allowing them control of any critics (Mitchell, 2001 in Chrisodoulides, 2009). Here the one way flow is very similar to the one used by traditional mass-media.

But the emergence of social media, and thus of a post-internet branding era, has led to a shift in balance in favour of consumer (Chrisodoulides, 2009). With the help of social media consumer can share their opinion and build their own free opinion of a brand or a company based on informations coming from other consumer.

This is particularly true in the airline and airport industry where companies have reacted in two very opposite way to those changes.  On one side companies such as Virgin Atlantic are often praised as examples for their active and innovative approach to using social media platform to communicate and attract consumers (Barwise and Meehan, 2010). On the other end of the scope a company such as Ryanair, the leading low-cost European airline with more than 81 million passenger transported in 2013 (Lundgren, 2014) has no official presence on social media platform. The only presence are from “anti-branding” (Krishnamurthy and Kucuk, 2009) groups such as “Ryanair Sucks!” (Facebook, 2014a) a Facebook page regrouping nearly 3.000 angry consumer actively posting and sharing any critics or bad news concerning the Irish low cost company.


However this strategy of avoiding any official presence on any social networks platform is becoming a more and more isolated case among big international brands (Papasolomou and Melanthiou, 2013). A growing number of them are realizing not just the importance of taking part in the conversation with their consumer but also the potential those interaction represents. Through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Pinterest concept such as “collaborative creation” (also called “co-creation”), that is the working with consumers to improve or even create a new product, can be taken to a much broader scale as the example of Lego shows (Antorini, Muniz and Askildsen, 2012). In the case of airport operators the focus is more on the idea of creating and taking part in an interaction with their user. Here the view is that “in social media marketing, the focus is on conversation" (Armelli and Villanueva, 2011) creating a real dialogue with the consumer.


So how does a company manage to adapt to all the changes social media is creating without “losing sight of the fundamentals” (Barwise and Meehan, 2010, p.80)? The two authors answer this question by recommending to rely on four qualities that need to be present in the ‘marketing playbook’ for social media platform (Barwise and Meehan, 2010, p.83):

- Communicate a clear, relevant customer promise

- Build trust by delivering on that promise

- Drive the market by continually improving the promise.

Seek further advantage by innovating beyond the familiar.

Those four recommendations are of course just some of the aspect that are key when it comes to social media platform. They are however build on two very relevant business examples: Virgin Atlantic Airline as a model of good social media use and Toyota for their great handling of the recall crisis using social media platform. Finally the recommendations offers the advantage of providing a solid foundation on which to start analysing the strategy used by Heathrow airport on their social media platforms in crisis situation.


Heathrow Airport creates online dialogue

The choice of Heathrow Airport was made as it is the world third and Europe biggest airport with more than 72 million passenger in 2013 flying to or from one of the 184 existing destinations (Heathrow website, 2014b).  Its social media strategy is mainly focusing on two platforms, Facebook and Twitter but the organization is also present on Foursquare, Instagram or LinkedIn for example. The four person strong team in charge of the different social media platforms has been created following a change in communication strategy but mostly following important crisis situation for the operator such as the snow storm in December 2010 and 2011 (Thomson, 2013). 

It is in this kind of situation, crisis situation, that social media platform have the best impact as they offer a very quick and direct way to reach a very broad audience. As already mentioned, airport such as Heathrow are often facing a situation of crisis creating a form of near ‘permanent crisis’. This could be coming from harsh weather conditions (snow, wind, fog for e.g.), strikes from the personnel or problem with public transport for example.

Using the four recommendations by Barwise and Meehan (2010) seen earlier, the social media approach of Heathrow airport is going to be analysed:


- Communicate a clear, relevant customer promise

When going to Heathrow airport Facebook page the customer promise is clearly defined: “More than just an airport, here at Heathrow we aim to make your journey better, while also invite education and discussion about the future of the UK’S only international hub” (Facebook, 2014b). 

Both the Facebook page as well as the Twitter feed (Twitter, 2014) account are mainly used to help answer passenger questions as well as inform them as quickly as possible on any potential problems. The use of a clear logo, identic on all platform as well as similar colours is also a good strategy to great a stronger brand image (Park, Eisingerich and Pol, 2013).


- Build trust by delivering on that promise

This is where the role of social media platform such as Facebook and Twitter has the best impact. Those two platforms provide live and easily updated informations to a very broad number of consumer. The Heathrow airport Facebook page is for example updating travellers as soon as a disruption such as a strike or flight cancelation occurs. The Twitter account respond to a lot of information asked by travellers.


- Drive the market by continually improving the promise.

Using social media offers the chance to establish a form of dialogue with the consumer in this case travellers. By asking about their opinion on different aspect, the airport operator can get informations to help make strategic decision. Here the best example is the debate regarding building a third runway for Heathrow Airport (Parker, 2014). The Facebook page is regularly updating its reader on the subject.  


- Seek further advantage by innovating beyond the familiar.

It is also very important for a company to not just use social media platform as a one-way stream just informing the user but also to regularly surprise them in order to keep them active around the brand. This is of course much harder in crisis situation but very much encouraged in more ‘smooth’ periods. Here the recently formed social media team for the Airport Heathrow seems to be doing well as they finished second in the category “Best Airport on Social Media” of the “SimpliFlying Awards for Excellence in Social Media 2013” (SimplyFlying, 2013). Another travelling website cited the airport as an example when it came showing “personality” on social media platforms, citing some example for their Twitter feed (Shankman, 2013).


Furthermore the operator is also applying the right choices in terms of content in order to expand the reach of its message by: encouraging discussion through direct question, choosing more popular form of posting such as video and pictures and by providing informations that reader wants to share (Vries, Gensler and Leeflang, 2012). It is also increasingly trying to favour consumer generated content (CGC) through photo competition for example creating a more solid bound with travellers (Muniz and Schau, 2011).


Future development of Heathrow airport social media strategy?

Heathrow Airport has, like many international brands, incorporated social media platform in its overall marketing and communication strategy. They have perfectly understood the shift from company driven message to a two way discussion led by the consumer being “empowered” (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009) by social media.

However, a number of question remains. The first one concerns the development and the growing use of social networks on the go. As Kaplan (2011) already underlined 3 years ago this is a deep and solidly developing trend. What impact will this have for airport operators? How can this best be used to provide a better and more personalized service to travellers?

Secondly the horizon is not all blue sky for the airport and its social media platform strategy. Heathrow airport has recently seen the development of a very broad and strong “anti-branding” movement (Krishnamurthy and Kucuk, 2009). This opposition to the operator has been fuelled by the plan to build a third runway for the airport raising massive protest from local resident, environmentalist and opposition parties. Website from the “No Third Runway Action Group (NOTRAG)”, “Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN)” or online petition such as the one offered by the “No 3rd Runway” are having an overall negative impact on the ‘Heathrow brand’. The supporter of those opposition groups are also very active on social media platforms through their own YouTube channel or Facebook page but also by reacting to post by the different social media channels for Heathrow Airport. The opening of the official “Community Consultation” on the subject is likely to attract a lot of reaction and heated debate on social media platforms. How will they manage those critics while remaining open to a real debate? Is there a risk of seeing strong anti-branding page developing in the same way they have for Ryanair for example?


 Paper reference list:

Antorini, Y.M., Muniz, A.M., Askildsen, T. (2012), ‘Collaborating with customer communities. Lessons from Lego Group’, MIT Sloan Management Review, 53(3), 73-79.


Armelli, G. and Villanueva, J. (2011), ‘Adding social media to the marketing mix’, IESE insight, 9.


Barwise, P. and Meehan, S. (2010), ‘The one thing you must get right when building a brand’, Harvard Business Review, December, 80-84.


Chrisodoulides, G. (2009), ‘Branding in the post-internet era’, Marketing Theory, 9, 141-144.


de Chernatony, L. (2001), ‘Succeeding with Brands on the Internet’, Journal of Brand Management 8(3), 186–95.


Deighton, J. and Kornfeld, L. (2009), ‘Interactivity's Unanticipated Consequences for Marketers and Marketing’, Journal of Interactive Marketing, 23, p. 4-10.


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Krishnamurthy, S. and Kucuk, S.U. (2009), ‘Anti-branding on the internet’, Journal of Business Research, 62, 1919-1126.


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Muniz, A.M. and Schau, H.J. (2011), ‘How to inspire value-laden collaborative consumer-generated content’, Business Horizons, 54, 209-217.


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Park, C.W., Eisingerich, A.B. and Pol, G. (2013), ‘The power of a good logo’, MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter, 55(2).


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Urquhart, C. (2013), ‘Heathrow cancels 100 more flights as snow leaves hundreds stranded’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at: < > [Accessed 10th of February 2014].


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