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Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines: A social media case study

If you took some time off yesterday to spend it with a loved one,  you might of missed the Twitter cage match that went down between writer, actor and director Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines.  I am not going to supply the blow by blow details, but you can read all about it on Gawker.

To summarize what took place, Kevin Smith was removed from a Southwest Airline plane because the captain deemed him too large to fly in just one seat.  According to reports, Kevin was strapped in and on the plane and was forced to get his things and leave the plane before takeoff.

If something like this happened to you, you would be embarrassed and probably pretty pissed off.  Kevin was and immediately took to his Twitter account with more than 1 million followers to express his anger and frustration towards Southwest Airlines.

This incident and Southwest Airlines “size policy” is going to be debated for weeks.  I think both sides have valid points.  Though this is not what I want to cover in this post.  What I want to focus on is the great social media case study this incident represents.

An out of touch captain for Southwest Airlines kicks a famous person off of his plane.  Kevin Smith would absolutely be considered an influencer as he has more than a million Twitter followers, not to mention millions more who watch his movies, read his books and listen to his podcasts.  No matter who you believe is right or wrong, you have to take your hat off to Southwest Airlines for how they handled this crisis.

Let’s remember that all this took place beginning Saturday night and things got interesting  Sunday Valentine’s Day.  Let’s break down the game film:

Kevin Smith sent out the first tweet on this incident at 8:52 pm on Saturday Feb 13th:

ThatKevinSmith: Dear @SouthwestAir – I know I’m fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?

Southwest replied to Smith’s tweet a little under six hours later on Sunday Feb 14 at 3:10 am:

@SouthwestAir “Hopefully you received our voicemail earlier this evening” All lines checked, no voicemail message on any 323. Try again.

This began a back and forth Twitter throw down that Southwest Airlines could not win.  When you are dealing with an influencer who has the backing of his people, right or wrong, the people are going to have their say against the big bad corporation. This is where Southwest’s social media strategy truly took flight.

They did the following:

  • They responded to each individual who tweeted to @SouthwestAir about the situation.  No matter how mean the tweet was, they responded.  They apologized that Mr. Smith had to go through what he did and explained their company policy.
  • They posted a blog post once again apologizing, but also explained the airlines position.  When their blog went down because of all the traffic they were receiving, they moved their blog post to another Web site so people could read it.
  • If you check out the comments on the blog post, you will see users who left comments with curses and writing some not so nice things about Southwest.  Did they remove these comments or take the easy route and just turn the comments off, no. (Note: the Web site is still real slow because of all the traffic they are getting.  You might not be able to get to this page.)
  • They had a VP from Southwest reach out and speak to Kevin Smith on the phone.

Can I remind you that all this took place on a Sunday.  How many large publicly traded corporations could of turned all this around within eight hours during the work week let alone on a holiday weekend?

Whether you agree or disagree with Southwest and the incident, the one thing I think we can all agree upon is how well Southwest has handled this crisis.  Instead of running and hiding, they immediately engaged in the online conversations.  They did so without legal or corporate communications double speak,   their responses were conversational and honest.  They knew they were going to take a beating but still decided to pull up a chair and be a part of the conversation.  More corporations should learn from this incident and how Southwest dealt with a crisis in the electronic age.

Special shout out has to go to Christi Day.  She is a member of Southwest’s Social Media team and was the author of the blog posts, comments and tweets this weekend.  Christi did a phenomenal job during what had to be a challenging time.

When I have developed and presented social media training for C-suites and Corporate Communications clients,  I try to get across a couple of main points.

  • In social media, you cannot control the conversation.  Don’t even try.  Your goal is to listen, understand, engage and potentially influence.
  • You are never going to make everyone happy or solve everyone’s problem.  Using this case study as an example, Kevin Smith is not going to be a fan of Southwest Airlines no matter what they say now.  But Southwest understands that they are fighting for the hearts and minds of the thousands possibly millions of other people who are witnessing and discussing this incident online.
  • Finally, half the battle is just showing up.  Southwest knew they could not win this argument.  They knew they were going to take their lumps, but they understood that not engaging in these conversations would be shortsighted and deliver far worse results
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