Delta Airlines has some 690,000 followers on its Twitter account, United Airlines has nearly 460,000, and it must have seemed that most of them were actively tweeting about the carriers in not-so-friendly terms over the past week.
And, if you add to that the more than 1.9 million followers that the official FIFA World Cup destination and golfer Rory McIlroy each have, Delta and United had the opportunity to experience the spontaneous combustion and reaction of the Twitter universe.
It is no secret that due to the tremendous growth of social media, companies — and specifically in this case companies that deal in the landscape populated by sports teams and athletes — have had to significantly increase awareness, response and resolution time and, of utmost importance, the overall quality control of their actions and messages.
Delta and United became prime examples of that last week.
Following the U.S. Men's National Team's 2-1 win in their first game of the FIFA World Cup on June 16, Delta sought to congratulate the squad by posting on Twitter a two-part photo: It showed a "2" superimposed over the Statue of Liberty to represent the United States, and a "1" superimposed over a giraffe to symbolize Ghana.
The problem, as Delta immediately found out, is that giraffes aren't native to Ghana.
"For a company that specializes in travel, you'd think @Delta would know a little more about geography," offered one tweet. Another at least gave Delta credit for starting a trend: "Delta puts giraffe in Ghana, the first Twitter screw-up for a brand during the '14 World Cup."
Delta took the hits and responded.
"As a global airline, we understand the role images play in shaping global perceptions," the carrier wrote in a statement. "We also recognize our responsibility to create messages that are both accurate and inclusive. We take this responsibility seriously. Yesterday, we failed to meet this responsibility. For this, we sincerely apologize."
Delta added that it would review its procedures "to ensure that future images and posts reflect both our values and our global focus."
Unfortunately, fellow airline United did not stress quality control when it came to McIlroy, who flew the carrier from the U.S. to Dublin last week to participate in the Irish Open.
Upon landing, McIlroy discovered that his golf clubs were missing and took to Twitter to seek a resolution.
"Hey @united landed in Dublin yesterday morning from Newark and still no golf clubs... Sort of need them this week... Can someone help!?"
That tweet lead to a slew of negative headlines, such as "Club Dread: Rory McIlroy Takes Out Anger On United Airlines."
That night, United Airlines was named the "World's Worst In Sports" by Keith Olberman on his ESPN show.
And, as with Delta, Twitter participants responded to United's situation, including:
"On the list of people’s luggage you don't want to lose, one of the world's greatest golfers is up there."
"Guess you should have shipped the clubs @FedEx Don't you watch the commercials?"
"Why you flying @united ??"
And "I guess it's nice to know that @united doesn't discriminate who they give their horrible service to!"
Pro golfer Annika Sorenstam had her own tongue-in-cheek reply: "I don't need mine this week @CallawayGolf “
United Airlines also replied, reportedly within hours, albeit in somewhat ungrammatically correct fashion:
"We understand how important your clubs are to you. Please follow and DM us you bag reference ID. We'd like to follow up.' JH"
And then: "We have good news. Your clubs will be in tomorrow and we'll deliver them to the tournament for you. JH"
To which Cindy Boren of the Washington Post observed: "It's a June 17 miracle! @United says it has found @RoryMcIlroy's golf clubs.."
McIlroy himself confirmed the news, sending out a tweet, "Re-@united with my clubs!" along with a picture.
In both cases, social media was the catalyst for Delta and United to realize their mistakes, just as it was the motivation for them to quickly respond.
Which brings to mind philosopher and novelist George Santayana, whose arguably best-known quote is ironically most mis-quoted on social media: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”