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Another week, another Twitter travesty. This week it's Kevin Smith, who was kicked off a Southwest flight when the flight's captain apparently made the call that he was too heavy to occupy a single seat. Smith is a movie director with more than 1.5m followers on Twitter, and he let them know about his ordeal in near real-time.

The outcome was predictable: a new Twitter-induced media storm, and PR nightmare for Southwest.

But there's an interesting wrinkle to Smith versus Southwest. It's not the incident itself, the use of Twitter to publicize it, or Southwest's policy. It's the fact that a lot of people are voicing support for Southwest.

The airline, which apologized to Smith via Twitter and on its blog, defended its policy. For some, Southwest's apology was too much. While Smith certainly has a large number of supporters, anyone reading the comments on articles and blog posts will note that there are a significant number of individuals expressing disappointment that Southwest apologized in the first place. Many note that Southwest's policy has been in place for some time and should be applied consistently regardless of the public profile of a passenger. Others argued that Smith was wrong for criticizing a decision made by a pilot. And so on and so forth.

While this is an incident that is bound to create strong reactions on both sides for obvious reasons, the incident does raise an important question for companies worried about Twitter-fueled crises: when should companies say 'sorry' and when shouldn't they?

It's not always an easy question to answer, but here are some suggestions:

  • Don't apologize for apology's sake. The customer isn't always right. That's a hard thing to tell companies in a day and age when companies are beat over the head with clichés about the awesomeness of customers. But apologizing should always be done after consideration, not as an automatic reaction. One good reason why: when a company apologizes for just about everything, the apologies cease to have any meaning whatsoever.
  • Wait until you know the facts. Customers complain. Sometimes complaints are justified, sometimes they're not. Apologizing in response to a complaint is therefore not advisable until you know whether a complaint is justified and whether you're in the wrong. Note that there's a difference between saying 'We're concerned about your complaint and will do our best to address it' and saying 'We're sorry'.
  • Mean it. Don't apologize if you don't mean it. Here, Southwest has reiterated that it believed booting Smith from a flight was consistent with its policies. Policies that it ostensibly designed to protect the comfort and safety of other passengers. Therefore, there's a valid argument to be made that Southwest didn't owe Smith an apology unless it discovered that a mistake had been made and Smith's ejection from the flight was inconsistent with the rules that are used to administer its policies.
  • Don't play favorites. Apologies are reserved for royal screw-ups. If you apologize to someone simply because he or she has a high profile or is making a buzz-generating fuss, you will send a disturbing message to your customers: we issue apologies whenever it's expedient.

At the end of the day, it's my opinion that many companies need to toughen up. That means saying 'sorry' when it's the right thing to do, not when it's the easy thing to do.

Photo credit: Pylon757 via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 17 February, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2392 more posts from this author

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Andy Ciordia

Yea but one thing to consider is who you are apologizing to.  Kevin Smith can make a movie about your screw up.  Joe America doesn't have that much real influence.  Hell he still will probably use this as fodder, it's too beautiful not to.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Andy,

I don't think any movie studio is going to bankroll a movie about a guy being kicked off a plane, nor do I personally think the general public would care enough to go and see it.

In any case, apologizing simply because Smith wields higher-than-average influence violates the suggestion, "Don't play favorites".

over 6 years ago

Nigel Sarbutts

Nigel Sarbutts, Managing Director at BrandAlert

Southwest passed the 1, 2 test

1 They aknowledged the issue quickly and started to get their side of the story out there and didn't panic

2 The truth, once the emotion was stripped away, was that they acted in a way that was consistent with their published policy.

Both of those two things together is a formidable defence against hysteria and I'm guessing Southwest judged it right, that this passenger was someone who was eventually going to tire themself out.

Contrast this with say Paperchase who failed at 1) and didn't really tell a story around 2) and so left a vacuum to be filled with speculation.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Nigel,

I'm so over Paperchase but...notwithstanding the fact that Paperchase didn't have a Twitter account to issue meaningless 'We're sorry and will be in touch' tweets, Paperchase responded fairly similarly by posting their side of the story on their website within a day.

As for that incident, we now know that another indpendent artist 'stole' the design and repeatedly denied it to Paperchase, Gather No Moss and HiddenEloise before coming clean.

Which offers another social media lesson: sometimes all of the facts aren't immediately known and speculation is inevitable.

over 6 years ago

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Ray Wilson

This article seems fairly one sided, in my opinion. Kevin Smith has commented in his SModcast and and in a series of YouTube videos about this incident - and none of the content seems to have been considered here. This means anybody who reads this will simply think Smith was just throwing a hissy and expecting special treatment, when that was entirely not the case.

Also, he wasn't going for sympaty with the SModcast and videos/messages etc, just trying to clear stuff up, and then reiterating it in a different way (videos) when it was clear that the news outlets couldn't be bothered to use information from the SModcasts because it was 90mins of audio.

Unfortunately it has all led to a bit of overkill, but this is because people haven't taken on board what he's saying and just stuck to "lol fattie should fly first class instead" etc. Because it's easier, and the the truth takes a little more effort to find. Easier to just read the ill informed news outlets and assume the famous guy must have a big ego.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Ray,

The point of this post was not to debate whether or not Kevin Smith's ejection was 'justified' in an abstract sense.

Southwest has reiterated its belief that its policies were adhered to, and my understanding is that the decision was made by the flight's captain, who is given the authority to make such a decision. Thus, in the absense of any belief that an employee violated the company's rules, Southwest shouldn't be apologizing for the sake of apologizing.

That's the point of this post: social media hasn't eliminated the need for companies to remain principled. Companies shouldn't feel like they have to apologize just because somebody on Twitter is upset.

As I mentioned, this is obviously an incident that will attract extreme arguments on both sides, but I also think it's fair to point out that, if you look at how Smith responded to the incident, it's not entirely surprising that a lot of people were turned off by him and it has absolutely nothing to do with his weight or ego.

If Smith really wanted people to hear him out, responding to the situation with "Go f**k yourself, Southwest Airlines" was the wrong way to get their attention. Decency and respect work both ways. If Southwest had responded with "Go f**k yourself, Kevin Smith," you can be sure that far fewer people would be supporting Southwest's position.

over 6 years ago

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Adam

Companies need to "toughen up"?!? What world is this writer living in. Customer service is terrible at many companies already. Airlines and airports are horrible and treat people like dirt. Don't encourage them to be even bigger assholes! If the crew had their act together in the first place, they would not have created this situation by putting him on the plane, then taking him off. He was on standby they should have bumped him to another flight to begin with.

over 6 years ago

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wes

Southwestern has a "big" problem. They have failed on all 4 of your suggestions.

Their apology is not an apology. They don't mean it. They have distorted the facts. They are playing favorites (dealing only with Smith). It all adds up to a failing PR grade.

For example, listen to this random heavy-set woman Natalie tell her story of being humiliated by Southwest Airlines as she flies from Oakland to Burbank and is seated with Kevin Smith, who was just thrown off the previous flight. Smith has interviewed her and posted her story:

http://smodcast.com/smodcast/smodcast107.php

If you’re a “person of size” (anyone over 200 lbs?) Southwest can and might embarrass you, snicker at you, and make you cry before letting you fly. Even if you’ve spent $15-$200 extra for special treatment with the Business Select class that lets you board first and get a drink. Smith’s story is not unique.

Southwest has a capricious and arbitrary policy regarding "persons of size" needing to buy a 2nd ticket. Even if you meet their written guidelines and you can lower the armrests it apperas that they give their employees a license to shakedown random "fatties" for a 2nd ticket.

over 6 years ago

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Brian

I've heard the snodcast and read the blog posts. 

I for one would love to see Southwest take Kevin Smith up on his challenge...the one where Southwest Air brings its chairs in on the Daily Show, and have Kevin Smith sit down to demonstrate how easily he fits in. But I want to see Wes and Ray sit on either side of Kevin for comic relief. 

That will never happen. The reality is that despite what Kevin, Ray and Wes would want you to believe, the vast majority of employees of Southwest Airlines really don't go to work and look for people to demean or put down, any more than the average worker at any American company. 

It's a classic story in hospitality - if someone finds one wrong thing to fault, then every interaction gets scrutinized even more. 

But guess what? That's life. 

Stay classy, Kevin.

over 6 years ago

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wes

Consider this Brian,

CDC.gov reports:  Percent of noninstitutionalized adults age 20 years and over who are overweight or obese: 67% (2005-2006)

Therefore if any 3 random males (or people for that matter) are seated in a Southwest row, 2 of the 3 will be overweight or obese. Will that meet your requirement for "comic relief?"

If the comic relief of stuffing average human revenue into small 17" seats is the SOP at Southwest Air that you would "love to see." Then it sounds like you are a fan of blood sport like dog and cock fighting too. The real comedy is your calling air travel "hospitality."

Airline hospitality is having to worry about over-worked, under-paid, stressed-out wait staff, who work in a crappy flying cafe decide if they want to throw you off the plane or shake you down for a 2nd ticket. Have a nice flight.

over 6 years ago

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Wes

Patricio, If you take the time to dig into Kevin Smith's story you'll find that Southwest has lied and distorted the truth. They even slyly changed their story after Smith called them out. First, it was the pilot who they said had him removed him from the plane, then it was the collective "we" who removed him. Sorry, they have no credibility. see: http://is.gd/8D5PF

over 6 years ago

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Penny

SWA lied to Mr Smith then lies to and about him in their *apology*. Admits they lied then shock and wonder they attemtp to lie again by. changing the language in their first blog with out changing the date of the post. The mistake SWA has made with social media is they underestimated now easy it is to spot their. Lies. This was never fatgate it was is and will continue to be LIARGATE untill SWA cleans up its act.

over 6 years ago

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Penny

SWA lied to Mr Smith then lies to and about him in their *apology*. Admits they lied then shock and wonder they attemtp to lie again by. changing the language in their first blog with out changing the date of the post. The mistake SWA has made with social media is they underestimated now easy it is to spot their. Lies. This was never fatgate it was is and will continue to be LIARGATE untill SWA cleans up its act.

over 6 years ago

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Jamie

Thank you!  Some people know the truth!  Unfortunately, looks like Southwest is staying quiet and waiting for the whole thing to blow over.  I understand why Kevin didn't go on Larry King or any other show about the matter, but but but MAYBE then the true details would be known by a much wider audience than those of us who have listened to/watched him online.  He's just trying to promote his new movie and everything, you know ... Oh well.  Tiger's turn.

over 6 years ago

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Paul

Patricio, no!  Bad Patricio!  You're not interested in whether or not Southwest's policy is good or bad?  Wait until a very vague and subjective policy causes you outrage.  I'm sorry Patricio Robles, but with a name like that you're just a "Mexican."  You're not from Mexico?  Doesn't matter.  You don't matter.  A Mexican with the internet!  You must be second generation!  YAY for Pablo - I mean, Patricio.  Whatever.

Geeez.  Hope I don't sound opinionated!  I'm really not interested in that though.

over 6 years ago

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SF

Patricio, your comments are great. Wanted to comment about one in particular, though, that I think has a different dimension...

While it's true that you couldn't find a producer who would bankroll a film about a guy getting kicked off a plane, you'll probably find a lot of producers enthusiastic about a director who would stop at nothing to promote his film in the crucial weeks before its opening date. The news coverage he got out of this was pure gold.

I wrote about this last week - about how this whole thing was really about promotion. It always seemed fishy to me that ANYone who has the thick skin to deal with the hard-core realities of the film industry would risk looking silly after getting bumped off a flight. 

over 6 years ago

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