Pinnacle Flying to New Heights with Social: A Business Case Study

December 17th, 2010   •   1 comment   

An interview with Eric Epperson, V.P. Culture and Communications by Amy D. Howell

A few years ago, I began my journey on the social media path and ultimately began helping Pinnacle Airlines Corp. develop a strategy, policy and monitoring platform for the company.  Fast forward and we’ve come a long way although I believe this is a journey that never ends.  Social media, digital “story telling” is an evolving, dynamic and quite frankly, exciting way for companies to communicate both internally as well as externally. 


Last June, Pinnacle hired Eric Epperson to help establish the kind of positive workplace culture that many world-class companies have built their reputations around. (Eric’s bio can be found at the end of this post);  Recently Eric and I sat down to talk more about how we are integrating social into the communication strategy and here’s what he had to say:


Q:  What do you think social media means in general to a corporation in general terms–the high level view?


A:  The main thing it means is dialogue, which had never been available through traditional corporate channels. We’ve gotten really good with television spots, brochures, newsletters, web sites, video-on-demand, etc. But all of those are primarily one-way “push” channels, which limit their effectiveness.


Remember in high school when you learned about the communications model? Several different versions have come out through the years, but they all involve a sender, a receiver, and a message. And most importantly they all include a feedback loop from the receiver to acknowledge they got the message (literally and figuratively). That closing of the communications loop with real-time, authentic feedback was never available to corporations (at least not effectively).


It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to reach your customers, investors, or employees; genuine, two-way dialogue was out of reach for companies before social media.



Q:  Tell us what social media means at Pinnacle right now


A:  Pinnacle Airlines Corp. is different from a lot of companies, because we really don’t have a visible external brand. We are three airlines (Pinnacle, Colgan and Mesaba) flying as partner carriers for Delta, Continental, United and US Airways. As such we’re stewards of their brands every day – in the skies and at the airport terminal. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own brand and our own culture – it just means our 7,700 employees are the single most important face of our brand (even more so than at most companies).


That’s why we’ve focused most of our social media efforts on enhancing the fifth “P” of Marketing – our People.


This is particularly important at this stage in our history. We acquired Mesaba this past July, so as we work to build a unified culture that reflects the history, spirit and values of our combined airlines, social media is a central channel.


Q:  One of the most difficult challenges for companies like Pinnacle is to get buy in from top management for understanding and integrating social into communications.  Has that been the case here?


A: Not like you might expect. Our senior leadership team is very savvy, and pays attention to trends in the marketplace. They understand the huge potential of social media, and the power of two-way communications. In fact, Pinnacle launched a Twitter handle long before I arrived, and Phil made it clear when I was hired that one of my responsibilities was to drive more purpose and integration into our social media strategy. These guys get it.


e=”font-family: Arial;”>Q: What resources have you committed to the social media program?


A: We have a team of internal and external people like you Amy, Glen Gilmore, Alex Cox, Joe Williams, Cara Sievers and me working on this daily. But social media touches recruiting, IT, HR, etc., so we have other areas of the business also involved. Right now we’re making sure we set up the channels correctly, and that we build on what we know works. It’s truly an across-all-divisions type of adoption. You can’t just put social media or digital marketing in a separate department. It involves communications and coordination with everyone. Ultimately it’s my job to coordinate all the moving parts and I think our strategy of focusing on internal uses first will serve us well.


Q:  How are you using social internally?


A:  We recently created a Facebook Community (Pinnacle People) that will ultimately become the centerpiece to our strategy. This is where we showcase video stories of our people in action – themed around our Purpose (community involvement and volunteer stories), Personalities (our unique hobbies and activities) and Performance (behind-the scenes stories of our people from all areas of the airline who keep us operating safely and on time). It’s also a place to share news about our company. And perhaps the most popular feature has become the growing number of photo galleries from across our airlines. People love to make a connection with their peers and feel like they’re part of something bigger, and Facebook is tailor-made for that.


Q:  Externally?


A:  Our Facebook community, while geared toward connecting our people, is attracting a growing following from the general public – folks interested in learning more about our airline and our culture. And we welcome that.


We also have a YouTube channel to showcase and share those people-focused video stories that are cross-promoted on Facebook. And we’re very involved in LinkedIn for recruiting as well as virtual collaboration.


But our primary external channel is our Twitter feed (@pinnacleairline). We use this to provide travel tips and promote vacation ideas (true to our business model). For instance, when the TSA screening procedures story started to trend so furiously, we provided information to help the traveling public separate myth from fact, and get through airport security more smoothly. But it’s also our first PR channel when things happen – from announcing our new headquarters decision to giving updates when a major terminal in ATL was temporarily closed due to a power outage. And of course we work closely with our mainline airline partners to re-tweet relevant information posted by their teams.


Q:  What benchmarks will you use to determine the much touted “ROI” of social media?


A:  We are already realizing the impact of our plan. Our monitoring alone has been huge for us.  We’ve found things we didn’t know we could find.


In the days leading up to announcing the Mesaba acquisition, we got a kick out of all the “verified rumors” circulating about who was buying them. Ironically, for all the speculation not one person suggested that it would be Pinnacle buying Mesaba so we never had to go to our leak plan. We used social media extensively to listen to the chatter during the recent FAA reauthorization legislative hearings, and their regulatory changes regarding pilot fatigue and additional minimum flight hours. As a result, we didn’t get one media call that we weren’t prepared for because we knew what the hot topics were.


We have internal goals set for our Facebook fan page and believe that will be a great repository for employees to ultimately share their own Pinnacle stories. User-generated content is a great way to deliver that dialogue I talked about earlier.


Q: This last question is one we hear all the time: What if someone posts something bad on your page or talks badly about the airline online?


A:  They will anyway whether we are there or not – it’s just the nature of the business. We’d rather know, address it and correct it. That’s the spirit of our management team and ultimately what got everybody to the table to embrace this.


One of the great things about social media is it gives a voice to the more moderate points-of-view, which almost always represents the vast majority but traditionally has been drowned out
by the extremes on either side of an issue. Not surprisingly, if one member of the community goes online to post something negative, we usually have another member step in to clarify or refute it before we have time to. 


Thank you Eric, for this great interview!  There’s a comment section on this blog we’ll watch and respond to if we get any feedback.  Before we close, here’s an example of an internal video we made now on facebook and You Tube which speaks to the “People Matter” value in our mission at Pinnacle.  Watch as Pinnacle soars to new heights in social. Thanks for reading and we look forward to your feedback and sharing.

Pinnacle People Video

About Eric Epperson: Joined Pinnacle Airlines Corp. 7/10. Previously at FedEx Corp. for past 9 years as Director of Workforce Communications responsible for planning and organizing strategic employee communications covering 290,000 FedEx team members. Recognized for his contributions, Eric was awarded the FedEx “Five Star Award”—the company’s highest honor for personal performance.  Prior to FedEx, Eric served as Director of Communications for AutoZone.  A native of Slidell, LA, Eric earned his BA in journalism and advertising from the University of Mississippi.  He is married with two children and enjoys sports, the outdoors and aviation.

One comment

  1. Thanks Amy and the Howell Marketing team for an excellent case study on the business realities for social media. It's refreshing to see an executive make smart, deliberate use of the social channels and see good return within the community and their publics. Mr. Epperson shares so many important takeaways for every business and a serious understanding of the PR/marketing/HR/communications opportunities with social media. Extremely valuable reading for any business questioning social media's validity and value.

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