News.com.au called it “the social media fail of the year.” It was featured on Gruen, Buzzfeed, in The Australian, The Guardian… and of course it trended on Twitter.

In case you haven’t heard, the Victorian Taxi Association’s request for people to share their taxi stories attracted a shitstorm of tweets such as “It smelled like a wookiee’s armpit” “I was preached at about how Somali immigrants are destroying Australia for 25 minutes” and “Driver fell asleep on freeway and almost wiped out car in next lane because he’d pulled an all-nighter.”

And that’s before we even get onto all the reports of assaults, sexual assaults, and epic rudeness.

Undoubtedly, they didn’t mean for this to happen. The VTA probably confused the huge public usage of their service with popularity, when the truth is they are just a monopoly. Or close to one.

When you’re unpopular, it perhaps isn’t smart to ask people in a public forum what they think of you. (McDonalds made the same mistake with #McDStories back in 2012).

VTA chief executive David Samuel, in response to the media attention, commented that: “The response online over the past 24 hours isn’t anything we didn’t expect.”

I’m sure that’s not true.

But he also said some things that are actually quite sensible: “We asked for feedback and we got it. The good and the bad and everything in between.”

Later statements even implied some kind of learning was taking place: “We want to make sure our service continues to meet customers’ expectations in a period of rapid change,” said Samuel. “We will respond to everything that comes our way on YourTaxis.”

And this is where I see a glimmer of hope for Vic Taxis. One of the remarkable features of the internet is the increased transparency and democratisation of criticism. Just take our own industry. Whereas once, the creators of an ad could think they’d done a good job because there was no forum to critique their work, they can now find out what everyone really thinks of it, via the comments section of the ad blogs.

It is my belief that a person or organisation has nothing to lose from criticism, and in fact has everything to gain.

Domino’s pizza launched a fantastic campaign in 2010 via Crispin Porter & Bogusky which showed the company’s chefs and executives being exposed to dire criticism of their food, and having the courage and integrity to use that criticism as fuel to create a better product. It worked.

And if there is to be a future for the traditional taxi in a world of Uber, they will have to do the same – improve the product. Like, make it not smell bad.

So, whereas a lot of social media campaigns might lift a brand’s awareness or make it marginally more popular, the Vic Taxis “fail” actually has the potential to transform their business entirely. If they choose to let it.

Which could make this one of the most beneficial social media campaigns of the year, not the worst. And certainly not, as many commentators demanded, something that the agency behind it should be fired for.

Although three days later, they did tweet this:

Now for this, yes. For this they should be fired.

And indeed were.

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