It has been a busy time for Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) public relations department. After facing a backlash from its website relaunch earlier this year, the airline has finally decided to dip its toes into social media - launching its presence on Twitter and Facebook.

For an iconic brand that is known for a certain sense of caution, these are notable changes. The Holmes Report discussed them with SIA public affairs VP Nicholas Ionides, who has spent over two years in the role, since switching from a career in the media.

What are your objectives in launching on Facebook and Twitter now?

It really is about engaging with the customer. We do appreciate we are quite late in the game here. It’s not as if Twitter or Facebook are new, but we have taken a very cautious approach up to now. The main reason being that we wanted to be able to do it right. That meant being able to engage properly with the customer and have a structure in place that allows us to have 24-hour engagement rather than saying we are only open nine to five Singapore time. So far we are very encouraged by the feedback we have got. We do of course know that not everyone will always be there to say nice things about us. What has been very encouraging is people have really welcomed us engaging them when they complain.

You will be opening yourself up to more complaints. Is that a big change for you?

In some ways, yes. It’s important to point out that this doesn’t replace our existing channels of communications. We, of course, have a customer relations department. This is an additional channel to that. It’s also important to point out that the way you use social media to communicate with the customer cannot be just one focused thing - so it cannot just be special deals. Because if you had only that, you would not give people a reason to come back very often. You really have to involve very different areas of the company. Our messages relate to PR, marketing and sales activities but also to get people interested in the brand. If you look at communications in times of flight-disruption, this also helps us in those times. While we were widely praised in April for our response (to the volcanic ash issue) by December (snowstorms) things were different - by not being on social media at that time, we weren’t providing customers with what they expected. That’s one of the factors behind this as well - to ensure we are moving with the trends in terms of demands of our customers.

In making the company more social media-adept, do you find that there is a lot of work that has to be done internally?

Absolutely. We are going into social media because that is what customers ask of us but also because there are great benefits. One of the reasons it has taken us so long to get here is because we wanted to make sure when we did it, we got it right - which meant making sure we were prepared internally. Our social media engagement is not driven by one small group, it is driven by many departments and has a lot of visibility at the top levels of the company. We wanted to make sure we had the proper feedback channels in place and the right monitoring systems in place.

Did you work with any specific agencies?

In terms of look and feel, our advertising agency (TBWA) was involved in that. In terms of approach, that was done in-house, by studying many different companies across many different industries and applying the unique attributes of an airline to it. Resources is something we knew we had to get right - so we looked at different models like outsourcing, but we chose to keep it in-house because we want to ensure that voice we have with the customer is our voice. You have to know your business, know your brand and what it stands for. We feel the best way to express that is to have our staff involved.

There was a fair amount of feedback regarding your website relaunch earlier this year. Will your new social media presence help in this respect?

It already has. Obviously we don’t want to have major events. When things happen, it is about communication. One of the things that we have seen as soon as we launched our social media presence, is we would get feedback about the website and we have responded to people who have raised issues about the website. We’ve been very encouraged by the way people have reacted to our engagement with them in that way. You can never please everybody, but people are clearly happy to hear us engaging with them.

SIA actually took over the Facebook page, which was previously run by London banker Khoa Huynh. In an interview, Huynh described SIA as an “aloof brand.” What is your response to that?

In terms of getting feedback from customers, we actually get tons of feedback from customers in many, many different ways. He’s correct in the sense that we haven’t been consulting people on social media. But we do consult our customers in many, many different ways. We are surveying them all the time. You cannot be in the business we are, and give somebody something and say take it or leave it.

For SIA, does moving into social media represent a big culture change?

That’s a very tricky one to give a yes or no answer to. I think we have to say yes. Every organisation getting into social media has to look at it as a culture change. However, the basics still apply which is about communications and communicating with your customer and ensuring you are listening to them and giving them something they want and a reason to come back to you. From an internal standpoint, social media is very effective in bringing the organisation together across many different departments because you all have a stake in it.