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.