KLM Airlines has built a reputation among airlines as a center of excellence for social media strategy, but in its latest attempt at real-time social media marketing, the airline managed to offend a significant chunk of the world’s social media population.
After Sunday’s disastrous Tweet following the Mexico/Netherlands World Cup match — in which it paired ‘adios amigos’ with an illustration of a Mexican man with cartoonish sombrero, mustache and poncho in a Departures sign — we reached out to KLM’s for comment on what it learned. We learned that KLM definitely knows it did something wrong, and it promises not to do it again, but it’s just not sure what it was.
“We had very emotional replies,” a spokesperson for KLM who spoke to Skift about the incident state, sticking to the script of their official apology. “We apologized to those we have offended.”
The official statement from the airline in its entirety, published on their news site is as follows:
“We realize that our posts on Twitter and Facebook following the match triggered many emotional replies. We emphasize that it was never our intention to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the best of sportsmanship, KLM apologizes to those who feel offended. In respect of the many reactions we received we decided to remove the posts.”
In fact, the replies the KLM Social Media team issued on its feed adhered to the same carefully worded message, all stating that the company understood the “emotional reply” and therefore had removed the posts.
We asked the spokesperson whether KLM understood the reasons for the “emotional replies” to their tweets, and were told: “It’s how you feel after a football match, when you’re focused on the results … emotions can rise, even with the Dutch.”
Emotions did rise, with a number of strongly worded replies attacking KLM for the ill-conceived message, which it posted then quickly removed on Twitter and Facebook. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal tweeted: “I’m never flying your shitty airline again. Fuck you big time.” Then removed this tweet too and apologized to his fans for letting his emotions run away with him.
I must say this: apologies to anyone who felt offended by my comments. I was caught by the football bug that spoiled my sense of humor.
— Gael Garcia Bernal (@GaelGarciaB) June 29, 2014
The actor’s fans replied in support, saying that while it was classy of him to take back any offensive messages, he had nothing to apologize for–they agreed with his original Tweet wholeheartedly.
We asked KLM what reply it had received to its apology statement, whether anyone had in fact accepted their apology. The spokesperson we spoke to pointed out Bernal’s rescinded and revised Tweet as an example of acceptance. Which indeed it wasn’t. The tweet was directed at Bernal’s fans and in the spirit of maintaining the integrity of his own social media presence which the actor’s fans found no fault with.
We asked KLM whether they understood that the characterization of Mexicans in the Tweet was an offensive stereotype. The spokesperson replied that it was intended with good humor when it was developed, and that KLM make fun of themselves all the time. We asked whether they would have been comfortable with a Tweet representing the Dutch as nothing more than winged bonnets and klompen (clogs). The spokesperson repeated that they make fun of themselves all the time.
Skift delved into the origins of this post with the spokesperson, asking how it came to be in the first place. The spokesperson confirmed that the post had been prepared ahead as part of their World-Cup campaign and held in the eventuality that the Netherlands won the match. They stated “It was conceived by our Social Media team,” and explained: “We tried to think of interesting posts which could be used,” adding, “we wanted it to be funny as with previous cases.” The spokesperson pointed out that some followers did get the tweet in the humor with which it was intended, though they acknowledged these individuals were in the minority.
While the spokesperson repeated that “it was never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings” and repeated that the airline plays on Dutch stereotypes all the time, we couldn’t find any evidence of that — unless occasionally including tulips in airline photographs count.
We did find this Tweet in Dutch promoting flights to Mexico which went out on the June 21, perhaps a foreboding of the problematic World-Cup Tweet:
— Royal Dutch Airlines (@KLM) June 21, 2014
Translated from the Dutch it says: “Time for Tacos, Tequila and crazy discounts.”
Of course, part of the reason for the anger at the Tweet was the controversial penalty decision, which some fans felt stole the game away from Mexico, and football is an emotionally charged experience. However, in the spirit of sportsmanship, mocking opponents after winning is not cricket. Or football. Or soccer.
Mexico may have lost the match but Aeromexico scored a goal with fans with their Tweet welcoming the Mexico team home:
— Aeroméxico (@AeroMexico_com) June 29, 2014
When expressly asked, KLM told Skift that it “will look at cultural sensitivity” when they plan future Social Media campaigns.
It’s unclear whether Martijn van der Zee, Senior Vice President of e-commerce at the airline would support such a move. On a recent post on the KLM blog where he wrote about his lack of strategic vision. He emphasizes that a trial and error is essential, stating: “Fail fast and often. PowerPoints won’t help you do that; building, testing and tweaking will.” Van der Zee also states that he rewards experiments, “Experiments never fail, they can only bring results you didn’t expect.”
KLM did not expect Sunday’s results, but it could have.
— Royal Dutch Airlines (@KLM) June 26, 2014