Social media

The CAA used social media to keep stranded Thomas Cook customers informed

When Thomas Cook went into administration, social media became an information channel for stranded holidaymakers

The Civil Aviation Authority received more than 40,000 inbound messages on social media which each received a response within, on average, half an hour but often in just 15 minutes.

Indeed, the CAA received the equivalent of one message every single minute of every single day for the first seven days after Thomas Cook went into administration. ‘We had a team working 24 hours a day, but it was a Herculean task,’ explains social media manager Oliver Turner.

‘It’s effectively customer service and that’s not what our Twitter is set up to do. Being candid, a normal day is usually four messages and they will be about drone usage or passenger rights. We reply same day but not 30 minutes. ‘We had to find a level of being personable, and appreciating that people are concerned about what they are, but balance that with receiving 40,000 messages.

‘We’ve only got a finite resource so finding that balance quite early was important. Effectively, we had stock answers that we would tailor to the situation. That was key.’

Head of external relations Will Nathan adds: ‘We were lucky that we could be really transparent. We could physically go to the operations centre, and ask What is going on? and give really dynamic, clear and honest answers to questions, but also saying This is complex. We were unashamedly saying We are working incredibly hard. We are not going to get everything right. And it’s not going to be perfect. Expectation management was critical. And people got that.’

Historically, the CAA limits its social media usage to Twitter while its financial protection unit ATOL also uses Instagram and Facebook, although these were deployed during Operation Matterhorn.

We put up a single post, stating that the CAA was the single source of truth now.

Before Thomas Cook collapsed, @UK_CAA, which has been running for seven years, had around 34,000 followers. It now has more than 45,000. ‘We had ten million impressions across all our social media content, which was a mixture of organic and paid for,’ explains Turner.

‘We set up different advertising campaigns for each Thomas Cook destination. Rather than posting them all out on our Twitter feed and cluttering it up, we used dark ads so only people in those destinations would see them.’

Social media was particularly important in Cuba, where holidaymakers found themselves unable to use local WiFi to access their email accounts – until the British ambassador intervened – leaving Twitter as their only source of news.

The team also took control of Thomas Cook’s Twitter feed, which had more than 146,000 followers, posting a single message about the situation, with contact numbers and advice to visit the CAA website.

Turner explains: ‘We put up a single post, stating that the CAA was the single source of truth now. But the key thing was to say that the Thomas Cook account would not be monitored, and that the only account that would be monitored was the CAA’s.

‘Everything we did across all our content, including social media, was pointing people to our dedicated website. We also made sure that other government channels all pointed ‘for further info’ towards our website.’

Much of the website’s content had been prepared before Thomas Cook went into administration, although occasionally tweaks were made to clarify information, so, with the exception of flight details, it was largely static over the period.

Everything we did across all our content, including social media, was pointing people to our dedicated website.

‘The website had two audiences,’ explains Nathan. ‘Consumers, who were obviously the most important audience, but it was also talking directly to the industry, other ATOL holders and travel agents and those who needed to provide support to consumers.’

The role of the ATOL team is to promote the financial protection scheme, and to stress the importance of booking package holidays that carry such insurance. By its nature, the work is more consumer-facing and so utilises well-established Instagram and Facebook accounts, which the CAA used during Operation Matterhorn.

‘We used Instagram to target holidaymakers, aged between 18 and 35, in resorts like Ibiza and Marbella, knowing that they might be hen dos or stag dos. These people might not be actively watching the news, but they go onto Instagram to upload a picture and find a message from the CAA,’ adds Turner.

‘The key thing is flexibility,’ explains communications director Richard Stephenson. ‘We wanted to use every channel we could and to be clear which channels would be ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ rather than just broadcasting. We went through Thomas Cook channels, deciding which ones would be broadcasting, which ones signposting and which ones closed down straight away.

‘There was a lot of work going through the social media estate beforehand, because if somebody is communicating through a channel they know and we don’t make it clear that it is not being monitored and they will not get a response, that is a massive risk. We made clear that everything pointed to the website, and from there they had other options.’

Over the period, there were more than 2.6 million visits to the dedicated website, with more than 15 million views.

The CAA also activated an amplification programme, drawing on well-established relationships with the Department of Transport and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, as well as a cross-government list of social media managers. ‘We gave them two options,’ explains Turner. ‘They could retweet our tweets or, because we needed to be strict about the wording, we said You can put it in your own branding if you want, but you need to say this is a CAA message and this is the exact message you must use. Most took the retweet option.’