More on Kevin Smith and Southwest

While talking about Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines with the client who turned me on to the story, we realized that this really is an emerging case study for social media. In my earlier post, I had mentioned that the issue was as much about a communication failure between Southwest employees as it was about any purported “anti-fat” policy. As the story progresses, however, I see Southwest continuing to fail in the world of customer relations via social media. Get this- they tried to apologize to Kevin, via Twitter, by offering him their standard $100 voucher.

Was there any basic social media training for the customer support team at Southwest? Regardless of what we think of his celebrity (or lack thereof) in mainstream media, the guy has well beyond one million followers on Twitter. His initial rant was via Twitter, so it is not a big leap to expect someone to check on this –and therefore gauge his level of potential influence-- before making that standard (and somewhat insulting) $100 voucher.

Key takeaway: SOPs for handling customer complaints should attempt to assess the customer’s level of influence. This does NOT mean that the everyday people should get lesser service. It DOES mean that the organization should recognize when it has an impending customer service issue AND PR issue and react accordingly.

As if that first move were not enough, Southwest then attempted to tell their side of the story via their blog. Yikes. It’s hard for me to imagine a response that could be much worse. Do they understand that they’re dealing with an emotional issue in a media ecosystem uniquely designed to convey emotional content? Not only that, I’m sure their blog does not have the same kind of dedicated traffic as Kevin’s Twitter followers. Even if their apology were right on the money, Southwest’s bullhorn isn’t big enough.

My colleague and I were trying to imagine ourselves in the (painful) shoes of Southwest’s PR team right now. The truth is, however, that Southwest has it pretty easy in this scenario. Kevin Smith is obviously upset, he was inconvenienced and embarrassed, but he also has the presentation of a funny and somewhat humble guy. To show what a good sport he is, he even gave them an easy out via Twitter…

Hey @SouthwestAir: you bring that same row of seats to the DailyShow, and I'll sit in 'em for all to see on TV. If I don't fit, I'll donate $10k to charity of your choice. But when I do (& buckle the belt as well)? 1) You admit you lied. 2) Change your policy, or at least re-train your staff to be a lot more human & a lot less corporate when they pull a poor girl off the plane & shame her.

What a great idea! Southwest gets a forum that’s big enough for their apology and corrective actions to be heard and Kevin gets to stop sounding like an irate fat guy. Only problem is that Southwest should have come up with this idea, not the wounded party. And, no matter what, they should make a charitable donation to something selected by Kevin. I can’t resist making a few PR recommendations here: Southwest should show up on the Daily Show with a hilariously small chair for Kevin to try and fit into. You know, have a laugh, try to focus on the miscommunication and less on the “anti-fat” policy. As I mentioned in my previous post, Southwest must take this opportunity to exam their processes - the issue is not just about the policy itself.

I’m interested in what you think. Did Southwest handle Kevin’s twitter-transmitted rant correctly? Did they miss other opportunities? What else can we learn from this?