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When Southwest Airlines turfed Kevin Smith off a flight last year for being too fat, the American film director and actor, known for his role as Silent Bob in Clerks and Mallrats, was anything but silent. (CARLO ALLEGRI/AP)
When Southwest Airlines turfed Kevin Smith off a flight last year for being too fat, the American film director and actor, known for his role as Silent Bob in Clerks and Mallrats, was anything but silent. (CARLO ALLEGRI/AP)

How to protect your business from Twitter damage Add to ...

With Twitter hitting 100 million active users, according to their latest report, it’s a force companies can’t ignore. If customers believe they have been treated badly, with one tweet, they can let the world know instantly.

When Southwest Airlines Co. turfed Kevin Smith off a flight last year for being too fat, the American film director and actor, known for his role as Silent Bob in Clerks and Mallrats, was anything but silent. His immediate and indignant tweets to more than 1.6 million of his followers (“What, was I gonna roll on a fellow passenger?”) were instantly retweeted around the world.

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Mr. Smith had purchased two tickets to comply with Southwest’s “customers of size” policy, but had boarded as a standby passenger on an earlier flight that only had one available seat. He was already seated when asked to deplane for safety reasons. Despite multiple apologetic tweets from Southwest, and the offer of a $100 (U.S.) voucher, which Mr. Smith rejected, the incident was a public relations fiasco for Southwest.

So what can companies do to redeem themselves if they get caught up in a virtual storm like this? Toronto public relations guru Mat Wilcox, founder of the Wilcox Group and personal adviser to top Canadian CEOs, shared some advice.

Could Southwest Airlines have handled the Kevin Smith brouhaha better?

It was tough for them, because they were doing a balancing act. There’s an angry person, who’s very vocal, and hundreds of thousands of customers who really want their own seat. Whatever they said would incur the wrath of one side or the other.

But a $100 voucher isn’t going to do it. An honest empathetic apology weighs more with the vast majority of people on social media than anything else you can do. The trick about an apology is how humble you are.

You can be funny or self-deprecating, but explain your side. For instance, saying, ‘You know what, it’s complicated because we have thousands of people who paid for their seat and are worried about [the safety factor] On the other hand, we respect Kevin and his situation, and we don’t want to disrupt his enjoyable passage on Southwest.’

Sometimes the right thing is just to say, ‘Sorry you had that experience.’ Sometimes that’s all people want to hear.

What if the person complaining wasn’t a tweeting celebrity? Does a regular person have the same kind of power on Twitter?

You don’t have to be a celebrity to be effective using this medium. I had a situation with an airline recently, sent out a tweet and in 10 seconds got a response of ‘How can I help you?’ Twitter and social media are the new way of dealing with customer complaints. Many, many individuals are using Twitter to complain, and companies are responding. You can also do just the opposite and be positive if you’ve had a great experience. It’s our new world, so get used to it.

What can companies do to redeem themselves if they get caught up in a Twitter storm of negativity?

The first thing they should do is deal with it. What we see so many times is that companies tend to not deal with the issue until they get the facts. It could take days, or months, for a public investigation. Who cares? The fact is, it happened.

So say, ‘I’m really sorry. We don’t know what happened, but it’s not who we are as a company. We’re sorry.’ And really mean it. Don’t just shoot out some fake old thing like a lot of companies do.

Be empathetic and talk; have a two-way dialogue about it. It’s not like in the old days, where you used to push out press releases and it was one-way communication. Nope. Life is two-way communication now. And it’s immediate. You don’t have five minutes to respond. You don’t have 30 seconds.

Is that why many companies miss out?

Absolutely. A lot of big companies, Lululemon Athletica Inc. for example, have 50 people just focused on the Internet and social media. They’re not spending on advertising. Major corporations like Starbucks Corp. and McDonald's Restaurants are all recognizing that this is our new community.

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