Good Deed Gone Viral Creates Web Headache for Travelocity

Oversharing of a company promotion sheds light on the shaky business of managing reputations online.

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For all the millions of ways that companies try to leverage the power of the Internet, there also seem to be millions of ways it can backfire. For a case study in the problems that the Web can cause, one need look no further than Travelocity, which finds itself in a dust-up over discounts this week.

The company has canceled the trips for some customers who used a promotion code intended for the roughly 3,000 attendees of the National Federation of the Blind's convention, held earlier this summer.

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At that event, Steve Dumaine, senior vice president of global strategy and project innovation at the online travel booking company, spoke to attendees. His company has been partnering with the NFB on making Travelocity's site accessible to blind users, and he told attendees that the company would give them $200 off of a booking.

"It was entirely a goodwill gesture," says NFB director of public relations Chris Danielsen.

The NFB tweeted the offer on July 4, which Travelocity retweeted:

"Travelocity has offered NFB members $200 off a three-night hotel and flight package through September 4; use code NFB2012."

Unfortunately, the tweet inaccurately stated that the offer was for members, not conference attendees. Travelocity removed the tweet, but the offer was also promoted on travel sites like BoardingArea. When the number of people using the code suddenly picked up, Travelocity looked into the issue and found that many people, including those who did not attend the conference and those who are not NFB members, were using the discount.

Travelocity would not provide numbers for how many people were affected, but the company says it is working on refunding the money for anyone who used the code but did not attend the conference. The NFB believes that the intended beneficiaries of the discount have not been affected. Danielsen says that he has not heard any complaints from members saying they erroneously had their trips canceled.

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But there are plenty of complaints elsewhere, from customers angry to see their trips suddenly canceled. Affected parties lashed out on Twitter and Facebook, complaining of canceled trips, threatening legal action, and blasting the company's customer service.

"@travelocity has screwed thousands of people over," wrote one Twitter user named Tony W.

"Because of this NFB fiasco, I will never book with you again. You should honor what you post on twitter. #fail #disappointed," wrote Blaine Morgan on Twitter.

It's all ultimately a minor affair—not the caliber of Twitter #fail that, say, brings down a congressman—but the episode shows how small miscommunications, shared widely, can create large headaches for major companies. The new tools of promotion—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, not to mention easily-sharable discount codes—have created a brave new business world in which reputations can easily be tarnished.

"Mass media online has dramatically increased the need for thought and planning before you do any proactive work," says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, a California-based consulting firm. "Something can go viral in minutes, and unless you are a) monitoring it very closely to catch those things and try to respond very quickly and b) have an infrastructure to respond quickly, you can quickly get overwhelmed."

Indeed, a look at the Travelocity Facebook wall shows that the company has been responding to dozens of blistering complaints. While a company wouldn't want to respond to every angry customer, says Bernstein, the onslaught of insults that can happen on social media has changed the problems that a company must address.

"You do have to pick your battles, but your most important asset is your reputation," he says.

And Travelocity and the NFB want to make sure that their reputations are secure.

"I think that some people have been trying to make this into a 'Travelocity ripped off blind people or treated blind people badly' thing," says Danielsen. "We don't see it that way."