On my way back from my semester abroad in Australia, I booked my international flight from Sydney to L.A. separate from my domestic flight from L.A. to Chicago to save money. My layover wasn’t nearly enough time for me to go through Customs and baggage claim and then baggage check in a different terminal, but I didn’t figure that out until I was actually trying to complete the task. Panic started sinking in when I finally realized I wasn’t going to make it and the tears started flowing as I made a phone call home to ask what I should do. Twenty minutes and several back and forth calls later with my dad, my Southwest Airlines flight had been switched to the next day and I had a hotel room booked for that night, no problem. This is the story I think about when I think of Southwest Airlines. Southwest was able to smoothly take care of my mini-crisis. However, several months before this particular flight with Southwest occurred, actor and film-maker Kevin Smith had a very different, and very controversial, experience.
Southwest Airlines launched its blog, “Nuts About Southwest” in 2006 and since then has expanded to 7 social media channels, which are all displayed in the upper right-hand corner on its blog homepage (as seen below), to create its collaborative social media strategy.
Southwest clearly has all of the major bases covered when it comes to social media presence. The airline’s Twitter presence was especially important on Saturday, February 13, 2010 when the story of Kevin Smith hit the Twitter-sphere. Smith, an actor and film-maker with 1.6 million Twitter followers at the time of the incident, was kicked off a Southwest flight for being “too fat.” Smith expressed his displeasure via a series of Tweets which were not only seen by Smith’s followers, but were also picked up by major news sources including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and ABC.
Please keep in mind that this case study is meant to analyze the actions Southwest took via social media to fix the problem, not the actions which sparked the problem (which did not involve social media). Also, please keep in mind that this case study is a display of crisis management through social media, so opinions of how the situation was handled are mixed.
The main website where Southwest lists all of its social media platforms is its blog, entitled, “Nuts About Southwest.” All social media statistics were noted on May 7, 2012.
Twitter: 8,913 Tweets, 10,134 ‘Following,’ 1,290,253 ‘Followers’
Facebook: 2,258,441 ‘Likes,’ 44,557 ‘Talking About This,’ 211,986 ‘Were Here’
Flickr: 1,627 Members
YouTube: 4,755 Subscribers, 8,463,719 Video Views
Foursquare: 14 ‘Check-Ins,’ 6 ‘Days Out,’ 2 ‘Things Done,’ 20 Friends
There is a Gowalla link on the blog, but it does not direct the viewer to a finished page.
The CEO, Gary Kelly also has his LinkedIn profile linked to the blog.
This case study isn’t about a campaign, but I feel it’s important to look at crisis communication via social media because it’s becoming a very good way for companies to communicate with customers and fix problems faster than customers calling in and waiting for an operator.
For approximately 30 years, Southwest has implemented a policy that requires “passengers of size” to purchase an additional seat for any type of flight. Smith originally purchased two seats for his flight from Oakland, CA to Burbank, CA but then attempted to standby for an earlier flight. There was only one seat left on the earlier flight, but Smith was still permitted to switch flights. However, once he was seated on the plane, Southwest personnel removed him from the plane because of his size. Smith posted his displeasure via Twitter:
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?
Wanna tell me I’m too wide for the sky? Totally cool. But fair warning, folks: IF YOU LOOK LIKE ME, YOU MAY BE EJECTED FROM @SOUTHWESTAIR.
Dear @SouthwestAir, I’m on another one of your planes, safely seated & buckled-in again, waiting to be dragged off in front of the normies.
@ThatKevinSmith hey Kevin! I’m so sorry for your experience tonight! Hopefully we can make things right, please follow so we may DM!
Hey folks – trust me, I saw the tweets from @ThatKevinSmith I’ll get all the details and handle accordingly! Thanks for your concerns!
I read every single tweet that comes into this account, and take every tweet seriously. We’ll handle @thatkevinsmith issue asap
I’ve read the tweets all night from @thatkevinsmith – He’ll be getting a call at home from our Customer Relations VP tonight.
@ThatKevinSmith Ok, I’ll be sure to check it out. Hopefully you received our voicemail earlier this evening.
@ThatKevinSmith Again, I’m very sorry for the experience you had tonight. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do.
@ThatKevinSmith We called you on the number you had on file in your reservation. If you prefer a different number, please DM me. Thanks!
Our apology to @ThatKevinSmith and more details regarding the events from last night – http://cot.ag/96KHC7 #Southwest
There are a lot of factors to take into consideration regarding this story. This is a very controversial issue that stirs up many different opinions. For some, the issue begins with the policy for “passengers of size” and whether or not that policy should even exist in the first place. However, Smith was obviously respecting the Southwest policy by originally purchasing two seats. The controversy comes in when Smith tried to switch his flight. Obviously, there was a communication problem. We could waste lots of time pointing the finger at one party or the other, but let’s bring our attention to the reaction of Southwest on Twitter.
I personally believe that despite the trip-ups that led to this crisis, Southwest was very positive and willing to help. Yes, it was a very reactive approach as opposed to a proactive approach, but it seems Southwest jumped in right away to get to the bottom of the problem. Southwest apologized, responded to the concerned tweets of other followers, and made it known it was taking a personal approach to solving the issue by calling Smith.
The fact that Southwest admitted there was a problem was the biggest indication that the team was handling the issue the right way. Southwest also didn’t stay silent, which is another ‘no no.’
Obviously, we would all retrace our steps back to the moment when Smith requested to switch flights. Concerning the social media approach though, I think that Southwest used social media to handle this situation in a very direct and professional manner.