Jack in the Box: Digital Activism and Corporate Reputation

On: September 14, 2011
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About Andrei Florian
I'm a former Bucharest based PR professional with a BA in PR and Communication Science. Currently located in Amsterdam, I am exploring the impact of New Media on the corporate environment at the UvA New Media MA.


The recent case of Jack the Cat going missing on an American Airlines flight has seen its fair share of attention in both new and traditional media. But what are the reasons behind AA’s relentless efforts to cope with digital activism?

It started when American Airlines lost Karen Pascoe’s cat Jack on a flight to L.A. from New York. Jack escaped his kennel after being checked in and its owner was noticed shortly after that the pet went missing. Pascoe was forced to take a later flight after her search at the N.Y. airport came up empty. She was assured that she’d get a phone call as soon as Jack was found. Despite numerous phone calls and emails, Pascoe claims AA finally contacted her only 66 hours later just to tell her that the pet hasn’t yet been found. Imagine that meanwhile back in New York everybody was busy with Irene. This is when a Facebook page was created for the missing cat, which gained rapidly a consistent number of outraged supporters. The outrage also spread to Twitter, where the #findjackthecat hashtag was created.

Noticing the build-up (at this moment the Facebook page has over 13,000 supporters), AA responded and apologized, launching a real, most probably costly, search & rescue mission in order to find the cat. The company even engaged the New York Port Authority in its mission and used dog-tracking services in order to find the missing pet. In the meantime, the airline updates its Facebook account with its efforts to find Jack and its being tweeting actively in the matter.

The story has caught enough round-the-world attention and some even may consider that the AA frenzy is getting quite hilarious. Indeed, the attention for this case might be considered surprising, but giving its background it is likely that AA is overcompensating after criticism of its almost absent engagement with audiences through New Media. STELLA Service ranked American Airlines last in a list of airlines in terms of response time to customer tweets and calls during Hurricane Irene.

But are the AA efforts truly justified when considering the potential damages? Are these outraged supporters going to give in to the call to action and actually stop using the AA services? Probably not.

Malcolm Gladwell argues in an editorial for the New Yorker (“Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted”) that social media is not in fact “the” platform for activism and that social networks activism does not produce real social change. Firstly, because real activism can only be achieved by relying on the “strong ties” of friendship and family which connect activists among each other, while social media platforms are built around “weak” or “loose ties”, and second because effective activism requires hierarchical structure, not something to be found in the diffuse structure of social media networks.

Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

In fact, might seem that the effects of digital activism actually tend to oppose to those initially desired, according to Gladwell. The feeling of completion, or maybe “will to powerlessness” as defined by Geert Lovink (2008), that we get from joining a Facebook group cause is enough to make us think we have acted, leaving no room for real activism.

The results of networking often are a rampant will to powerlessness that escapes the idea of collective progress under the pretext of participation, fluidity, escapism, and over-commitment. (Geert Lovink, 2008)

Bottom line, to Gladwell the only way to get people to adhere to your cause is by not asking too much of them.

Social networks are effective at increasing participation — by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.

Although maybe AA has nothing to fear regarding immediate high impact actions, its efforts are justified by the fact that in the long run bad reputation can have a strong outcome on its business. According to John Bell, Managing Director of Global 360° Digital Influence Practice – Ogilvy’s global social media marketing and communications practice, it is already established that consumers are taking most of their product and brand relevant topics online, meaning that word of mouth and peer-to-peer recommendations trend to be the main information channels. It is in this context that Google becomes a reputation manager and the main focus is drawn to search results. Companies must now practice effective search reputation management in order to control the information to which consumers ultimately base their purchasing decisions on and there is also a trend in developing tools in this direction, like Google’s Me on the Web service.

Even at this moment Jack the Cat scores in the top 3 Google results when searching for “American Airlines + Cat”.

•    Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments. New York: Routledge, 2008.
•    Gladwell, Malcolm.  “Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” New Yorker Magazine, October 4, 2010.

11 Responses to “Jack in the Box: Digital Activism and Corporate Reputation”
  • September 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    To answer the question of “Are these outraged supporters going to give in to the call to action and actually stop using the AA services?” Personally I give a resounding YES! When trip planning, I will see American Airlines pop up and the last taste in my mouth for AA, will be this incident with Jack. That will be the association my brain makes with the name “AMERICAN AIRLINES” and I will remember and I will not do business with them.

    Furthermore – I signed the petition to boycott them with this message –
    “I have 2 trips planned between now and February, my mother in law has about 4 trips she is planning and HER sister in law also has 4 DIFFERENT trips to plan in the next 6 months. In addition to several other family and friends who are planning random vacation and business trips, including holiday flights. We have all promised not to use American Airlines until the situation with Jack is resolved. Please AA, do your best and then DO BETTER than what you have so far. Thank you”

    They should realize that we can tell two friends and they can tell two friends and THEY can tell two friends and so on and so on…

    Especially in the airline industry – the competition is narrow enough that I can surely find a comparable flight with a company that would not lose, nor dismiss the importance of a valuable family member.

    Thanks for writing about Jack and keeping him in the thoughts of the public!

  • September 14, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    I am just curious as to why you used a source that is almost 4 years old for your references (Geert Lovink, 2008). Social media has changed a great deal since 2008. I think you are underestimating the power of social media. We just need to look at recent world history to understand this.

  • September 15, 2011 at 12:10 am

    My pets are part of the family. We have used AA until recently translantic keeping in contact with family and holidays.My husband was a frequent flyer with them but found each trip was getting worse quality. We used BA to fly our pets translantic.The organisation from the London end was faultless. I am dismayed to find they are associated with AA so could possibly use the same ( lack of) pet facilities in prep/ reception of animals at the U.S end of journey. I know for a fact there is no such pet facilities at SFO. I have seen messages from other ex pats around Europe and Asia & Australia who are worried about their return / outbound trip. Jack has certainly highlighted the need for proper pet facilities to warrant the high fees we are charged and the safe professional handling we expect. AA has voluntarily given us the heads up on now ‘who would we want to be in the hands of- if something went wrong with our pet’ its not too late for AA to come out as heroes this comming weekend, volunteers are going in to scour from the point the missing cat was last seen. AA is being very sketchy on the matter. The truth must come out- no matter what the result .Its how this is being dealt with that is more shocking ,a big change in facilities in the USA and urgency in resolving issues has got to come but, most of all the end to handling living breathing pets like tatty old boxes and suitcases, as the long list of lost, injured & killed pets in transit suggests ! K.Chittenden and family , London UK & CA USA

  • September 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I can say that I will NOT use AA after this fiasco. When you pay for a service there MUST be accountability by the provider of that service – especially when said service – if not maintained and managed properly – can cost lives (of any living creature/human). Human error (aka stupidity – hopefully not greed) is the cause and AA is accountable 110%. I can only hope that Jack is found safe n’ sound SOON!

  • September 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Sorry I couldn’t finish your article. With the title of this page being “Masters of Media”, I expected this article to be near perfection. However after reading the very first sentence, you lost me as a reader. Please have your writing proofread before publishing.

  • September 16, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    If you’d done your research a little better, you’d know that AA had time before Irene to remedy this situation. And while their efforts may sound good in print, in reality, they’ve been less than proactive.

    As a frequent flier (every week), I certainly have a choice. And as an owner of 3 cats and 2 dogs, this shameful episode definitely impacts my choice of transportation as I contemplate an 800 mile move.

    Trust MY babies on AA? Not on their lives!

  • September 16, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Misspelled word -5 points. Really? First paragraph? Not very master’ee of media…

    And word of mouth on poor customer serice on FB no diff than if I heard it in the grocery store line – same effect. Thus effect is taught in Biz 101 classes at universities all over the world. Why are we even still discussing this?

  • September 16, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I and my 6 cats will not be using American Airlines anytime in the future, I can assure of that. Shame on you AA for doing a very bad job when you were paid to do a good job, its really that simple!

  • September 16, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    I would prefer to see at least attempts of debate on this article than inane questions over spelling and sentence structure.

  • September 16, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    American Airlines will be forever linked in my mind with how they’ve grossly mishandled the Jack the Cat situation. Had they immediately reacted appropriately (someone’s family member is missing), Jack might have been found right away.
    Ever fly AA again? Not for a million bucks and free flights for life.

  • September 17, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I’m grateful for the media attention, but the opinion on this article is horrendous. Andrei is saying that AA’s efforts to find Jack are “hilarious” (not what they are doing, but that they would BOTHER to do anything). He notes that they didn’t launch a “real” search until the social media attention, but implies that they shouldn’t have because this incident won’t affect their profit margin.

    I have been pretty tolerant of AA’s efforts, even defending them on the Jack facebook page, but the opinion here makes me SO angry.

    The tone of this blog post is representative of evil corporate thinking. You don’t care about Karen or her cat, only how word-of-mouth affects sales. I hope this article spreads far and wide and MORE people hate AA because of it.

    To me, this incident is worse than the infamous Guitar Smash (Delta). A cat is a living creature. It is part of the family. The owner TRUSTED AA to secure her cat and the cat was lost.

    And we STILL don’t know how. Was there video footage? How was the crate secured? Did the cat bust out on his own or did some employee release him? AA has been mum and unforgivably unresponsive.

    Maybe AA doesn’t have to worry about losing sales. I can tell you I won’t fly AA after hearing about this, but recognize that other people will still need to fly.

    I can tell you that if I were Karen, a lawyer would be rapping on their door seeking punitive damages for negligence.

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