Don’t Piss Off Kevin Smith (and Other Solutions for Public Relations Nightmares)

by Jana Quinn · 26 comments

Public relations nightmare and what to do
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Hey BGB’ers!  Thanks for your patience during this hard time in my life right now.  

I’m slowly getting realigned after my dad’s death, but there has been a lot of stuff that went along with it outside of the emotional aspects I’ve had to deal with, so I’ve been pretty stupid busy.

I expect to continue to be pretty busy right up until mid-September at the earliest, so if you email me or are wondering why you haven’t heard much from me, that will be why.  Hopefully after that point, things will be settled back into a somewhat normal routine.  

In the meantime, I will continue to strive to provide you quality content, primarily with guests right now, and then back to a nice blend of guests and yours truly, once things have quietened down a wee bit.

And in other news, a guest post I wrote awhile back for Copyblogger will be hitting the interwebs in a few days, so I’m pretty stoked about that. :)  Stay tuned and I’ll let ya’ll know when it’s live!  

For now, on to a fantabulous post by Jana regarding public relations, nightmares, and how it all can make or break your biz and brand.  It’s a long-y, but easy readin’ I swear! ;)

Once you grow beyond the bad dreams of monsters hiding under your bed, taking a final for a class you never went to, and having your teeth fall out at your wedding (No? Just me?), you start moving on to bigger and badder nightmares.

The worst kind?

 Public Relations Nightmares

I don’t know about you, but I get chills just thinking about it.

There’s no way to completely protect your company from a public relations nightmare, but there are four key components to an appropriate response that’ll chase the demons back under the bed.

Instead of writing them out in a boring little bullet list, I’ll reveal these “night lights” while we walk through a relatively recent public relations disaster.

A Nightmare “of Size”

In February 2010, Southwest endured a pretty thorough online beating after a flight crew removed a “passenger of size” from a flight. The issue basically boiled down to a he-said-airline-said argument regarding the policy and its apparent arbitrary enforcement.

This all would probably have disappeared if the “passenger of size” didn’t have almost 2 million Twitter followers.

Film director Kevin Smith and alleged “passenger of size” took to Twitter with his side of the story while Southwest scrambled to respond.

The most important word in that last sentence is Twitter.

Twitter: Cute Little Bird or Public Relations Vulture?

At first glance, Twitter seems fairly limited: 140 characters per Tweet, restricted design customization, and one-sided communication format.

Twitter’s design proved to be a HUGE disadvantage to Southwest, who (as of this writing) has just over a million followers – far less than Smith.

Twitter allows all of Smith’s followers to see his side of the story, but – unlike an online forum or comments on a blog post – those same followers could not see Southwest’s response to Smith without seeking out the airline’s account.

Without a public forum to contact all of Smith’s followers, what could Southwest do?

The next day, a post went up on Southwest’s corporate blog…

Examining the Black Box 

By sifting through the rubble of what happened, we’re able to reconstruct the four key principles of a public relations response as well as how Southwest employed each one.

Let’s start with the language, shall we?

Natural Language vs. Wishy-Washy Corporate Speak

Southwest began by apologizing… kinda:

First and foremost, to Mr. Smith; we would like to echo our Tweets and again offer our heartfelt apologies to you.   We are sincerely sorry for your travel experience on Southwest Airlines. [sic]

Does this apology accept responsibility? You could say that if you’re apologizing, you’re recognizing that you did something wrong. On the other hand, you could just be acknowledging the other person’s distress.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, apologized to customers for remotely deleting copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles at the publisher’s request:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.

That is a personal, unequivocal ownership of the mistake.

Southwest’s? Not so much.

Night Light: Clear, natural language. And mean it.

The more wishy-washy the apology sounds, the more it sounds like slimy corporate speak. People have a much harder time being angry at a real person who sounds conversational, even if he/she is a representative of the company, than a press release with a cut-and-pasted response.

Want to turn an annoyed customer into a furious frothing-at-the-mouth, Hulked-out rage machine?

Six words: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

At the beginning of the post, Southwest was unclear whether it was apologizing for the actions of its staff or the emotional distress it caused Smith (or both). Later in the post, their position is clearer, but for now…

VERDICT: Wishy-Washy Corporate Speak 

Keep Your Cool vs. Flip Out Like a 60’s Hairstyle 

What followed next in the post was an objective description of the incident as reported to Southwest via its flight crew.

However, Southwest did not accuse Smith of lying or trying to get attention for his upcoming movie (which was – conveniently enough – going to be released a few weeks later). Southwest acknowledged that Smith had taken the incident public, but Smith was not directly quoted.

Night Light: Don’t get snippy. 

When you fight with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it (An unfortunate metaphor, but bear with me). State your side clearly and decisively, and don’t get wrapped up in the “but he STARTED it” whinefest. The little guy can always disappear if he’s caught in a contradiction, but your brand is sticking around.

In this case, Kevin Smith is a high profile filmmaker and couldn’t slip back into the shadows if he were caught in a lie, but the difference between a corporation and individual response still stands. Also, Kevin Smith’s profanity-laden comments were consistent with his personal brand; he didn’t risk alienating his own fan base.

Unlike Smith’s Tweets, which included invitations for Southwest to enjoy itself intimately if you know what I mean, Southwest’s response was comparatively calm and devoid of accusations.

This ruling can be made pretty clear, and it was…

VERDICT: Cool Like a Cucumber

 Identifying Areas of Improvement vs. Going Down with the Ship 

The next chunk of the post was a cut-and-paste job of the “passenger of size” policy that had been in place at Southwest for 25 years.

The first problem with this is that the airline was moving the goalposts. Smith wasn’t upset that the policy existed; he argued that he did not fit the requirements for being asked to be removed from the plane.

Southwest did not acknowledge this at all.

The next problem was that Southwest didn’t admit any errors on their part.

The incident still left a bad taste in people’s mouths, so clearly SOMETHING went wrong on Southwest’s end. By not identifying any opportunities for improvement (or even acknowledging the actual issue), Southwest implied that it didn’t care if this happened again and again; the policy was in place and future enforcement would be consistent with this incident.

Night Light: Acknowledge the actual problem, and find something to fix. 

It’s a rare incident that both parties don’t share some blame in a PR nightmare.

When analyzing your own issues, think about how things unfolded:

  • Were firm quotes given and products and services specifically described in all interactions?
  • Were all policies visible in several different places such as contracts, your website, and in a catalog?
  • Did everyone working on the account have access to information about every company-customer interaction?
  • Was information shared verbally AND in writing?

By responding in a way that recognizes you could have done better, customers who may have been inclined to side with the complainer see your response to adapt the company’s procedures in the face of error – a huge plus for you and for anyone on the fence due to reputation concerns.

The vast majority of PR disasters owe their magnitude to poor communication, which is a two-way street every time. This leads me to conclude that the…

VERDICT: Going Down Wi—

Wait, the “lady of size” didn’t sing just yet.

The very next day, another Southwest employee blogged, this time about a phone conversation with Smith. This second post acknowledged poor communication:

The communication among our Employees was not as sharp as it should have been and, it’s apparent that Southwest could have handled this situation differently. [sic]

The also delightfully vague “we’re looking into it” response was included:

[…] We will be reviewing how and when this delicate policy is implemented.

While Southwest did not state that there was anything about the policy itself that needed changing, it did recognize that the flight crew was unclear in its communication. It’s not much, but it’s a step-up from the number of championship rings Lebron James has.

Still, this looks like a mix of going down with the ship with a side of wishy-washyness, so I’m going to go ahead and say…

VERDICT: Too Little, Too Late

Taking Advantage of Increased Brand Awareness vs. Hoping it all Blows Over

You’ve never been more popular in your life. But it’s not the good kind of popularity you get from scoring the winning touchdown and dating the head cheerleader.

It’s the kind of popularity you get from getting your butt kicked by the school wimp and your personal diary published online.

Awesome.

While most people want to respond to the advice of “making lemonade out of lemons” with a well-aimed lemon to the nose, there is an advantage of having lots of eyes on your brand.

The advantage is that you have lots of eyes on your brand.

Not only did Southwest review its policy on customers of size (and there were some people who commended the airline on ensuring the safety and comfort of its passengers), but it had a platform and attentive audience with whom it could stress how its policy was BETTER than its competitors in this instance.

This policy is not unique to Southwest Airlines and it is not a revenue generator. Most, if not all, carriers have similar policies, but unique to Southwest is the refunding of the second seat purchased (if the flight does not oversell) which is greater than any revenue made.

Ba-zing!

Night Light: Make lemonade. 

This incident was particularly alarming to (and therefore more likely to affect the buying practices of) other customers who may be affected by the “passenger of size” policy. Southwest took this opportunity to promote three things:

  • This policy is based on comfort and safety, not revenue generation.
  • Southwest only enforces this policy when it is absolutely necessary (supporting the first point).
  • Their refund policy is a bonus that most of its competitors do not have.

Southwest made two stellar moves here in identifying the customers most likely to be directly affected by the incident and offering additional information on their policy.

Southwest could have gone a step farther by offering discounts or fun promotional products for fans that helped them come up with solutions. Now you’ve got engagement to secure the attention of those who just swung by to see the wreckage on the side of the information superhighway.

All that said, I conclude that Southwest…

VERDICT: Made lemonade.

Time to Wake Up! 

So how did this nightmare go for Southwest?

Based on the criteria listed: not well. They basically did a Jersey Girl at almost every turn. From my perspective, they screwed up and didn’t want to admit to it, so they moved the goalposts.

But because the company was large and interest was fading in 10-minute-old news, the incident faded from public view and Southwest is thriving.

Bloomberg Businessweek even named Southwest one of its top 25 Customer Service Champs of 2010.

Questions Southwest Should Be Asking 

How many passengers of size (and those who feel they may be borderline) have chosen another airline for fear of being publicly embarrassed by being singled out and asked to deplane?

How much faster could this have been over Southwest have been if someone from the airline simply apologized for incorrectly enforcing the policy, which is all Kevin Smith wanted in the first place?

Had they handled this properly, could Kevin Smith have turned from disgruntled passenger to enthusiastic brand advocate?

What are the big takeaways here? 

  • Address the issue decisively and in natural language.
  • Don’t get bogged down in public back-and-forth.
  • Identify areas for your company to improve.
  • Take advantage of the extra attention by including relevant selling points in your statements (but don’t be slimy about it).

And no matter how bad your PR nightmare gets, at least you didn’t murder 65 baby dolphins.

What Do You Think? 

How do you deal with public relations nightmares? Does your response change depending on whether or not your company was at fault, or is there a standard protocol in place no matter what?

Share personal stories here, and share this post on social media to find out how your colleagues and competitors have dealt with similar issues.

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!

Alright BGB’ers, you know the drill… like it, love it, or hate it, drop your thoughts in the comments below and if you love it… share it with your pals and help BGB keep growing! ;) 

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