Social media may be driving the way mainstream media characterizes incidents, according to Leslie Gaines-Ross in a Harvard Business Review blog post today. She looked at media coverage around last week's emergency landing of a Qantas jetliner, comparing it to stories about the "Miracle on the Hudson" that catapulted Chesley Sullenberger to hero status in 2009.

The two airline captains showed similar levels of cool, competence and cinematic bravery. But Gaines-Ross maintains that early social media speculation on Twitter - some calling the incident as a "plane crash" before the facts were known - lead mainstream stories to focus on the disaster that nearly was rather than the prowess in the cockpit.

Social media has long been known as a kind of early-warning system for reputation problems, as Gaines-Ross points out. But her example also highlights the vulnerability of corporate leaders. Like pilots, they are responding to situations often beyond their control, under a unprecedented level of scrutiny. They will have no opportunity to persuade the army of citizen journalists of their point of view before public judgements are rendered.

There is no editorial board for Twitter. The best we can do is make sure teams are listening to stakeholders, influencers and critics across channels. They must be empowered to respond quickly and trained to understand when they should not respond at all.

Corporate leaders rarely face the kind of harrowing life-or-death situations that Sully and "Qantus pilot guy" (the fact I don't know his name only proves the point) endured. But the challenges are not dissimilar; A good reputation, like cabin pressure, is usually ignored until it's suddenly gone.

Julia Hood
Arthur W. Page Society