Gini Dietrich

Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines: Crisis via Twitter

By: Gini Dietrich | March 10, 2010 | 

I  published this on Associated Content last week and thought it is a good post for Spin Sucks, as well. Enjoy!

By now, everyone has heard about Kevin Smith throwing a fit, and telling his more than one and a half million Twitter followers about his experience with Southwest Airlines.

Two weeks ago, the filmmaker was flying from Oakland to Burbank on Southwest Airlines. Smith is a big guy. So big, in fact, that he always books two seats when he flies. On this occasion though, there was only one seat available on the stand-by flight, so he took that, which is where the problems began.

Because I’m a communication professional, I’ll not go into why I think his getting stand-by on an earlier flight, and not having two seats available (which he purchased on the later flight), is the reason he was asked to leave the plane. Nor will I discuss whether or not he was profiled for being “fat”. Instead I’ll focus on what Southwest did really well, and what they could have done better, from a communication perspective.

First of all, Southwest has a policy that they abide by with every disgruntled customer… listen to what they have to say, reflect on the issue, apologize, and offer a voucher for continuing to do business with them. And that’s the policy they followed when responding to Kevin Smith on Twitter a couple of Saturday nights ago.

The problem, though, is that no amount of policy can quell a firestorm created on Twitter if not handled in the right way.

The incident happened on a Saturday night and the Southwest Twitter stream was being managed by Christi Day. Good for her! It likely isn’t policy that Twitter be manned like that on the weekends; she probably was just scrolling through some things and the Smith tweet caught her eye.

She responded. And then the firestorm began. Because she didn’t have authority to offer anything but an apology, and follow policy, the message was retweeted until it became a communication crisis for Southwest.

On Sunday morning Christi wrote a heartfelt blog entry titled, “Not So Silent Bob.” By reading the entry, you know she really feels badly and is doing everything she can to appease the man. But it wasn’t enough, as the angry tweets from Smith continued (including using awful profanity) and upset people commented on the blog.

Here is where the company went wrong…

They treated the Smith complaint just like any other irate customer. Unfortunately, a man with 1.6 million Twitter followers and some semblance of celebrity, isn’t just any other irate customer. Christi did everything she was supposed to have done, except call her boss, who should have alerted Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines CEO.

Southwest has one million Twitter followers — they have as much clout as Smith. Yet, they didn’t treat the situation as anything different until early the next week. But we all know in the world of Twitter, two or three days later may as well be months later.

If I were Southwest Airlines, I would have seen the tweet, and I would have responded publicly. I would have apologized and asked Smith if I could have our CEO call him, personally. Then I would have had Kelly call him on Saturday night. And I would have told my Twitter followers, “Gary Kelly, our CEO, just called Kevin Smith to personally apologize for his experience.”

Then I would have written the blog post on Sunday, including that information, except I would have had Kelly author it. There still would have been some anonymous comments about how much people don’t like the airline, but that’s to be expected.

By Sunday afternoon, Smith would have looked like a guy trying to use his celebrity to attack the company unfairly. But hindsight is 20/20.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Patti Knight

    I doubt that a call from the SWA CEO would have done anything to calm this man. He is typical in the “celebrity” way of thinking. I would not have received a call from the SWA CEO and I fly their airline too. If the CEO would have called him personally I doubt he would have stopped his rampage. I will still fly SWA and consider Mr. Smith as just another pampered celebrity want to be.

  • I can see both sides here – on the one hand I agree that had Southwest’s CEO called at least they could have Tweeted and (as you posted some time ago Gini) “dealt with the issue both publicly and privately” to address the online issue. Whether or not that would have satisfied Mr. Smith is in question but I think that the big thing here is that Southwest got it almost right…all things considered that ain’t too bad.


  • Rob

    @Patti: I really suggest you read Kevin’s final word on this matter at his blog:

    It’s the one where SWA basically says it was all a huge mess on their part and they lied.

    As far as I’m concerned SWA made a huge PR mistake here.

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  • Gini Dietrich

    If SWA lied, then this is a bigger problem than a PR mistake. I’m trying to decide if Smith’s blog post is someone from the inside trying to cause trouble or if it’s all factual. Either way, this is beyond handling it incorrectly, from a PR perspective. Oy.

  • I think that SWA could have done a much better PR job.

    Kevin was upset and rightly so – I’m not going to go into the details.. I follow him, read the blog and listened to the SMODcast… Even he admits he probably took it too far… on the SMODcast, his wife had to calm him down… Emotions run high and people explode and with twitter, you can’t take it back! (not really!)

    One thing is for certain though… I think not only SWA, but a lot of other companies are looking at what happened here – and if they are smart – are making changes to their policies or putting something in place… just in case someone with a lot of followers has an issue with them or their product! Can you just imagine the nightmare for a company is Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) started a campaign against them??

  • Gini Dietrich

    I just re-read Smith’s blog post and Linda’s own blog post about talking to him. It’s pretty clear Southwest screwed up. I don’t understand why or how it happened, but this is a nightmare all the way around.

  • Gini Dietrich

    Heck Shelly! What if one of us had a problem!? I mean, I don’t have millions of Twitter followers, but I have enough to create quite a stir. It’s time to do more than just monitor Twitter accounts and allow junior employees to manage them. It’s time to fold social media into the business strategic decisions!

  • Gini Dietrich

    And why the heck is my avatar not showing up? Grrrr!

  • Yes – It would be very hard for the average person to cause a stir – but they could! Social Media IS growing and I agree – companies need to notice that and respond in kind! I know they don’t SEE the ROI – but it IS there!

  • Sean

    Anyone who actually listened to the SModcast (http;// ep106 and the heartbreaking ep107 where he interviews Natali who Southwest targeted on his final flight home knows he doesn’t normally buy two seats because he is too fat to fly, he buys two seats because they are cheap and he doesn’t have to sit next to anyone.

    Southwest could have been averted by following their policy regarding Customers of Size.

  • I have a blog for my hobby, which is woodworking. I have about 300 regular readers, and 130 Twitter followers. Very small presence, I would say. That being said, I wrote a piece about a company who was taking forever to get my order shipped.

    Somehow it made it to the VP of this company, and they shipped it priority, and I received it the next day. I don’t have Mr. Smith’s clout, but the power of social media, can even help the little guy.

    The next post I wrote, was a lengthy piece about how impressed I was with they way this company handled my complaint, even though I hadn’t actually complained to them, per se. I had just grumbled a little bit that I was disappointed in how long it was taking.

    So I agree, they should have handled it as you suggested. Social Media is a powerful tool, underestimating the tidal wave of bad publicity, is a unwise move.

  • I still think both sides handled this very poorly. There’s a lot of “he said/they said” going around, making it difficult to get to the “truth.”

    “It’s time to do more than just monitor Twitter accounts and allow junior employees to manage them. It’s time to fold social media into the business strategic decisions!” That’s such a smart point, Gini.

    As I admitted on Amber’s blog yesterday, not sure I have a clear solution but if you check the comments, you will see some smart ideas about integrating social media and customer service. Here’s the link:

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  • Les

    Interesting post. I’ve been following this story since it broke and find myself divided. On the one hand I like Kevin Smith and his work (please don’t judge me!) and feel he may have been miss treated by SW. On the other hand I fly 2-3 times per week on three different airlines. Southwest is by far my favorite. Easy to do business with, fun and reliable. I agree they messed up and could have done a better job. It seems, based on what I’ve read, there are almost as many people siding with Southwest.

    What I find most interesting is the size of Southwest’s following compared to the other two airlines I use. One of which has 60,000 followers on twitter and the other less thank 20,000. If Kevin Smith had the same problem with either one of them I don’t know it would have gotten nearly the attention. Based on the SW flights I’ve been on since his unfortunate incident I would say they haven’t lost much business. Is there still an argument for “Bad press is better than no press”?

  • Ces

    I think it is a perfect example of the “2yr old” mentality that permeates our society in nearly every quadrant of business and politics. You make some great points about the way SW Airlines handled the communication. I say if only they could have given him a BIG FAT OVERSIZED PACIFIER!!!

  • Les, I will DIE if this is an example of bad press is better than no press. I mean, come on! My blog is Spin Sucks. What I do think this is a case of is most people think Kevin Smith is being a big cry baby (hence Ces’s comment). I’ve read both sides of the story. If Southwest lied about it or covered up the truth, I can’t speak to that. What I can speak to is the way it was handled from the first tweet…which could have been handled differently.

  • Gini – I keep checking back to watch this conversation unfold. I love that you waited to post, so we have a good sense of how the issue played out before we pass judgment on the merits of Southwest’s response. However, it’s very difficult for me to separate my politics from the case study. But I wonder if that’s not part of the larger PR issue at stake. The passenger of size policy is inherently discriminatory. If, like me, you believe that, an entire new set of questions emerge. What is the role in social media and citizen journalism in larger activist movements? How can it succeed — and backfire? Did Kevin Smith help the Fat Acceptance movement or set it back further? And…can a company use PR to distract the public from broader ethical questions? Can good customer service ever make up for bad policy?

  • B – From what I’m gathering by later blog posts from both Smith and SWA, they didn’t really boot him off the plane for the policy. It’s become more than a fat issue or a PR issue. It’s a complete mishandling of customer service at all levels – from the flight attendants to the corporate office.

  • Hey, I’m going to be a crybaby on this one, too.

    Before I was a big guy, I still had large shoulders. Gini can tell you, I’ve filled in since those days. But, I’ve always had to sit with at least one shoulder overlapping the person next to me, unless it was a child. That’s a treat, too. When I was 16, and thin as a rail, I sat between two youngsters who spilled everything from their trays on me for a good part of the transatlantic flight. When I get a seat in the aisle, I get my shoulder bumped repeatedly.

    Yeah, well be big guy about it, huh, you might say. Try wearing ill-fitting clothes or shoes for an hour or two. It’s not pleasant. There was a time when I would just suck it up. I had to get to New York overnight for that once in a lifetime interview with the Times. I had to get from Oakland to Denver quickly a few times. And, I’ve flown for various business meetings. Trust me, I never found away to fold myself or sit comfortably. When I could, I wandered the aisle.

    My solution is not to fly. My dream vacation in Tuscany will have to wait until I can afford fist class. Meanwhile, I am working hard at shedding the extra pounds.

    So, what do I do, Southwest. Get shoulder reduction surgery?

    If the airlines wanted to actually deal with size-enhanced folks, the solution is a simple one. Redesign seats so that some seats can be converted from first class to husky or whatever. Three across seating has to be very uncomfortable for one and all.

    When we get supersonic rail in this country (dream on), I bet they will be able to throw on cars for the more robust.

    When I get down to my target weight, I still won’t fly unless there is a very good reason – not even the steep discounts by JetBlue. My petite wife said she wouldn’t get on a $10 flight. (Wonder what a fist-class ticket is on one of those…)

    Maybe on this occasion, Kevin was over the top. The trend, however, is toward more huskiness. Make some room for crying out loud, airlines. What next? Bench seats?

  • Sue Anne

    I have to completely disagree with you on one major point — and that is the handling of the blog post immediately following the incident. First, the blog that is currently online has had several edits since it was first posted. The original post continued the “too big to fly” theme and shared consumer data that many didn’t feel was appropriate without Kevin Smith’s consent. I also felt at the time, and continue to feel, that the title of the blog posting was inappropriate. I do think there are lessons to be learned on both sides of the issue.

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