When director Kevin Smith was recently booted from a Southwest Airlines flight for reportedly not fitting in a standard seat, he immediately took to Twitter to share his thoughts with his 1.6 million followers. What came next was a media circus surrounding the airline's Customer of Size policy, a 25-year-old practice requiring some passengers to purchase two seats for accommodation. In the days after the incident, Smith racked up more than 100 tweets on the matter, posted accounts of his experience to his personal blog, and aired several podcasts on his Web site criticizing Southwest.
Meanwhile, the airline's communications team responded with blog posts of its own, with Southwest's VP of communications and strategic outreach Linda Rutherford reaching out to discuss the matter directly with the director. Rutherford offered her apologies to Smith, and wrote her account of the situation on the company's blog. Calling Smith a “reasonable guy,” she went on to say that Southwest staff should have communicated better with one another.
But an apology and a full refund later, the beleaguered traveler would still not keep quiet. Going so far as to challenge the airline to an on-air round of seat testing, Smith called on Southwest to bring a model of one of its seats to a taping of The Daily Show with John Stewart. The airline did not accept the invitation.
It's this anti-posturing that should earn Southwest kudos for the airline's commitment to customer outreach, while still demonstrating a responsibility to company policy. The airline's communications staff worked quickly to respond to a story that gained traction on- and off-line, reacting via its own social media network and displaying a collected front against what often proved to be a foul-mouthed display on Smith's part.
In light of the incident, one PR pro recalled advising a high-profile client facing similar backlash to share its message through a personal statement, and then move on from the issue. Engaging in a back and forth of “he-said-she-said” serves no one. Communicate early and often in a crisis, the adage goes, but don't belabor the point either.