Air Canada Ignores Dying Boy Til He Goes Viral

August 6, 2010
By Lisa Barone in Reputation Management

I was introduced to Tanner via Scott Stratten on Twitter. Tanner is a 10-year-old boy fighting muscular dystrophy. He’s 10 and he’s dying.  I don’t even know how you’re supposed to handle that. However, while the world still has him, Tanner’s aunt Catherine Connors and social media’s own Scott Stratten organized a tweet-a-thon on his behalf. They were raising money to help Tanner live out a few of his dying wishes, including racing through Central Park in a tutu and renovating his house so that he can die at home. Through the tweet-a-thon and the generosity of strangers, more than $25,000 was raised on Tanner’s behalf in just 30 hours. On Wednesday, Tanner and his aunt made their way to NYC so that Tanner could attend the charity event being held in his honor, live out some dreams, and even meet up with many of the bloggers in town for BlogHer.  It was going to be a remarkable trip.

And then Air Canada broke Tanner’s lifeline. His custom electric wheelchair was damaged in the flight, leaving the chair unusable and Tanner immobile and confined to a hotel room bed.   Air Canada said they’d have the chair fixed by Monday…which would have forced Tanner to miss his event.  So, instead of spending her night showing Tanner around NYC, his aunt spent it desperately trying to get Air Canada to step up and provide Tanner a new chair.

Eventually they did, but only after the social Web took them to task.  Loudly.

In social media we talk about a lot about doing right by customers and going above and beyond. We talk about engaging and responding to comments and showing that you care. But there are some situations where you shouldn’t need a social media consultant to tell you how to do the right thing. Situations where if you see that your actions broke a $15,000 wheelchair and hurt a dying child, you instinctively know the right thing to do is drop whatever you’re doing to fix it. Even if it means buying him a new wheelchair yourself.  Even if it means lifting him up and physically carrying him wherever he needs to go.

What you don’t do is ignore him. But, that’s what Air Canada did.

After seeing what happened, Air Canada said they wouldn’t be able to get a chair to Tanner until Monday. That was too late.

Air Canada then promised Catherine that they would have a replacement chair for her nephew by 6pm on Wednesday. No chair arrived.

When Air Canada broke their promise, Catherine tried to contact them to see what happened – all of their offices were closed.

She tweeted at them in case they were listening. Nothing.

She was forced to spend the rest of her evening in 800-number phone tree hell.  Frustrated she asked Twitter for help.

Hours and hours went by and nothing. And that’s about when all hell broke loose on the Internet.

Because so many people had been following the tweet-a-thon  and celebrated the $25,000 that was raised, they felt like they already knew Tanner.  They had rallied for him, tweeted for him and tried to virtually support him.  Hearing that Air Canada had broken his wheelchair and left him confined to a hotel room, they were enraged. The Internet had banded together to help a dying boy…and everything was being taken away from him  as a major airline hid in their hole. At the time, the #tutusfortanner hashtag did a good job displaying the outrage. [Tanner’s event was this morning so it’s full of hugs and love right now.] As did the comments posted on The Globe and Mail’s article on the topic.

Air Canada may have been content to leave a dying child immobile, but the Internet jumped into action. Many people came through to offer manual wheelchairs for Tanner. Unfortunately, they weren’t a viable option for his condition. Hundreds of tweets where shared as total strangers tried to locate a chair for Tanner and do whatever they could to help. In the end, a heroic company called Mobility Solutions donated a new chair to Tanner. Not because they had to or because it was good PR, but because someone needed help. And that’s what you do.

At least from that perspective, the story has a happy ending.

However, it won’t end well for Air Canada.

The outcry over Tanner’s situation could be heard from virtually every corner of the Web. For Air Canada to sit back, say nothing, and, ultimately, do nothing is inexcusable. It’s not about their lack of engagement or being accessible or any of that hand-holding crap. It’s about being a company with compassion toward human life. If, as a brand, you can’t even summon THAT up, especially when you know the whole world is watching, then you deserve the online reputation problem that’s coming your way. You deserve it big time.

Eventually, after a violent 24+ hours of public outcry, nonstop Twittering and the emergence of a viral movement, Air Canada did step up and get Tanner a new chair. They even threw in a trip to DisneyWorld.  But, at least in my eyes, it came far too late.  They didn’t act until they felt compelled to and they didn’t feel compelled too until the Internet made them. There are plenty of situations where sitting back and doing nothing is bad business. However, there are a few where it should be criminal.  I’d argue this is the latter.

Tanner’s aunt tweeted this before Air Canada provider Tanner with a new chair. However, I think it still stands.

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