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.


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