How would you grade Southwest’s response to the “Too Fat to Fly” controversy?

November 7, 2011

Was Kevin Smith too big to fit in their seats? Was Southwest too small in its response?

It’s been awhile since Kevin Smith’s angry tweets captured the imaginations of the twittersphere. What have we learned?

Now that  we’ve all had time to put some distance between the cause and effect of the situation, I’d like to engage you in a discussion about one of the decade’s most fascinating PR crisis management stories.

Let’s review the details of the story.

Actor/Filmaker Kevin Smith, most famous for his role as Silent Bob in the Clerks movies, was booted from a Southwest flight because he didn’t fit into his seat.

The actor, who struggles with a weight problem, had originally bought two tickets on an Oakland to Burbank flight.  But he decided to fly standby on an earlier flight, and only one seat remained.

After the gate crew let him pass and the flight crew seated him, someone changed their mind and asked him to leave.

According to a Southwest spokesperson, here’s the policy Kevin violated:

“If a customer cannot comfortably lower the armrest and infringes on a portion of another seat, a customer seated adjacent would be very uncomfortable.

A timely exit from the aircraft in the event of an emergency might be compromised if we allow a cramped, restricted seating arrangement.”

Kevin immediately started tweeting about this humiliating experience, and all hell broke loose.

Everyone from People magazine to TMZ to ABC News covered the story, with bylines like Southwest Thinks I’m Fat,  Too Fat to Fly, and Kevin Smith’s Fat Beef with Southwest.

Within minutes after Kevin’s Twitter tirade began, Southwest’s loyal online community started chirping about it on their social channels.

Southwest’s communications and social media team immediately went to work, apologizing and explaining its actions through its social channels.

They also shared plenty of humble pie with the blogosphere and other online media.

What did you learn from this incident?

  • I learned that in the social age, celebrities have the power to mobilize an army of faithful followers to attack or adore a brand.
  • I learned that even leaders in the social space can get knocked over by a runaway train of a story.
  • I learned that responding quickly to a crisis on your social channels doesn’t always and immediately diffuse a tense situation.

There are plenty of issues this situation raised which have not been fully explored yet, like:

  • How do you respond to the rebukes of a celebrity with 1.6 million Twitter followers, who is in the business of drawing attention to himself?
  • How do you show enough flexibility and sensitivity that you don’t alienate an insulted passenger, and a sympathetic public?
  • How do you defend a necessary if somewhat controversial policy, while demonstrating your sensitivity to people who suffer from a condition like obesity?

How would you rate Southwest’s performance in this delicate situation?

If you haven’t read them, check out the response to the crisis Christi McNeill posted on Southwest’s Nuts and Bolts blog the morning after and Linda Rutherford’s post, the following day.

Note the over 3,000 comments left by passengers at the bottom of Christi’s and Linda’s posts.

I thought that Southwest’s response was swift and contrite and well you saw what happened. How about you? What did you learn? What would you have done differently?

Hindsight is 20/20.  Don’t be afraid to use it here.


Travel marketing: Southwest Airlines shares its social media flight plan.

September 26, 2011

The Southwest social team uses a collaborative approach with internal and external partners.

A Southwest social media team member shares 6 strategies from their social media playbook.

Southwest Airlines communications specialist Laurel Moffat spoke recently at an AMA event in Kansas City.

Laurel shared 6 cornerstones of the Southwest social strategy every leisure marketing specialist focused on social media should study:

1. Listen first, talk later. The Southwest team has found that if you listen first, you can discover what content is meaningful and relevant for your audience.

2. Personalize the experience for your audience. Southwest team members sign their names to Facebook posts, share content customers are already thinking about, and localize content.

One example of localizing content:  Southwest maintains different Facebook pages devoted to fans at 20 different airports.

Southwest sends content like this to passengers on topics they are already thinking about.

3. Staff appropriately to manage your online community. The Southwest has a social media team of 5 people. Together, they monitor and communicate  with:

  • Visitors to their website, which receives 12 million monthly visits.
  • A Twitter feed with 1 million followers.
  • A Facebook page with 1.3 million Likers.
  • A YouTube channel that’s had over 5 million views.
  • An online travel guide.

This team monitors Southwest’s online presence 24/7, including hourly check ins at night, with two people trading responsibilities on major outposts.

The social team worked with Southwest's internal marketing group and an external agency partner to design this Facebook app.

4. Use a collaborative approach to your social strategy. The Southwest social media team collaborates in five ways:

  1. Internally with marketing, who create the look and feel for their social pages, the communications team who drive content,  and the legal and investor relations departments.
  2. Internally with customer service; emerging media team members are cross trained in customer service so they can address customer service questions directly, as they arise.
  3. Internally with Southwest employees, through a social media club, and the BlogCon conference to train them in social media and content creation.
  4. Externally with partners like Buddy Media for their social media platform and  VML for their external digital marketing needs.
  5. Externally with key influencers including travel bloggers, brand fanatics, avid travelers.

5. Let your social community decide what they like. The Southwest social team doesn’t try to predict or control what kinds of content their online community will like, and are constantly surprised by what their community looks at.

One example:  A video on the Southwest ground crew cleaning an engine is one of the most popular videos on the Southwest YouTube channel.

6. Fix your brand first, then launch your social media. When they first got into social media, Southwest had a few stumbles.

But it was ok because they had a strong brand with loyal customers. If their brand had been weak, some of those stumbles could have been disastrous. Learning:  Fix your brand, then dive into social media.

What have you noticed about Southwest’s approach to social media that Laurel didn’t address in her talk? What are they doing right? What would you like to see them change?

Thanks to Mike Brown from the Brainzooming Group for his excellent summary post of this event on Social Media Today, and the example Southwest email, which Mike used in one of his recent talks.

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