British Airways has become the first victim of a disgruntled customer using Twitter’s promoted tweets to highlight his complaint about their service (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23943480).

Promoted tweets were designed for advertisers who wanted their message seen by a wider audience by having it appear prominently in the Twitter feeds of relevant companies. They were meant to be a benefit to companies but this latest episode has turned this on its head.

Novel complaints about airlines are nothing new. Virgin Atlantic have previously had to deal with a letter about the quality of their food going viral and United Airlines were subjected to a video complaint on YouTube (“United Breaks Guitars” with over 13 million views) in 2009. So what does this latest episode show, other than that airline passengers are perhaps the most inventive of disgruntled customers and what can be done to defend against this?

Customers with complaints now demand immediate responses and will take to social media to vent their frustrations, coming up with ever more imaginative ways to make their complaint heard. Acting quickly is vital and responding to questions and complaints raised on social media promptly can benefit a brand. As with British Airways, businesses which run a 24-hour service will, rightly or wrongly, receive criticism for claiming that their Twitter feed is only manned from 9 to 5.

Consumer facing companies should regularly review procedures and processes covering complaints and their use of social media to highlight any areas which could give rise to reputational problems. Social media is a two-way conversation and companies need to respond to questions and complaints in an appropriate manner; preparing processes to allocate and escalate issues helps them do this seamlessly. Companies should also keep an eye on updates in social media and technology to be aware of avenues which disgruntled customers may take in the future.

Whilst British Airways cannot prevent a promoted tweet being used to attack them, more rigorous policies and procedures, coupled with more effective use of social media, could have avoided this issue arising.