Weighing in on Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith ain't happy with Southwest - but did it matter? (photo via Nerve)

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the headline.

In case you missed it, Hollywood Director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma) was bounced from a Southwest Airline flight for being too fat.  This happened on Saturday when Smith was on stand-by for a flight from Oakland to Burbank. He was boarded and seated, but then removed when the airline crew determined that Smith was too big for his seat.

Here’s Southwest’s explanation (via its blog Nuts About Southwest):

“When the time came to board Mr. Smith, we had only a single seat available for him to occupy. We are responsible for the Safety and comfort of all Customers on the aircraft and therefore, we made a judgment call that Mr. Smith needed more than one seat to complete his flight. Our Employees explained why the decision was made, accommodated Mr. Smith on a later flight, and issued him a $100 Southwest travel voucher for his inconvenience.

You’ve read about these situations before. Southwest instituted our Customer of Size policy more than 25 years ago. The policy requires passengers that can not fit safely and comfortably in one seat to purchase an additional seat while traveling.”

Needless to say being removed from a public flight because you’re too fat is humiliating, especially when you’re an easily recognized celebrity.  So no doubt Smith decided to strike first (probably before one of the celebrity gossip blogs could break it) by tweeting about it on Twitter.

His first tweet on the matter: “Dear Southwest – I know I’m fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?”

After that he went on an epic tweak-out filled with rage, humor, profanity, and frustration directed at Southwest and its surprisingly large number of defenders.  His Twitter rant has gone on for nearly 72 hours, including gems like:

“Sometimes it baffles me how little people think things through. “Free publicity!” = 200 new articles declaring I’m fat. Yay, me. Epic win.”

The gossip blog Gawker has a lot more.

Did Southwest make a mistake in removing Smith?  That’s clearly debatable (and they probably would not have done it if they realized he was a popular Hollywood director with a Twitter following of more than 1.6 million fans).

But the amazing thing about this story – at least from a PR and social media perspective – is how fast Southwest responded and how much goodwill they have gotten in return.  It was a textbook case for how corporations should deal with a social media crisis.  While there was no way this story was going to be quashed because of who Kevin Smith is – Southwest never took a wait and see attitude or tried to hide.

They quickly issued an apology via Twitter – and engaged directly with Smith.  They called him to apologize in person and have written two blog posts about the matter.

And it worked.  While there are certainly many Smith fans outraged at the airline for removing their idol – there are plenty of other people who have sided with Southwest.

This from Mashable: “Southwest’s use of social media in addressing the situation could be said to be commendable.”

And Southwest’s Facebook page was filled with sentiments like this: “Please don’t apologize to Kevin Smith, Southwest! I’m a skinny mini and I cannot tell you the number of flights where I have had less than 1/2 of my seat because someone else was in the rest of it.”

Why is Southwest getting the benefit of the doubt?  Because they have been an enthusiastic and active participant in social media for a long time.  Look at their social media assets:

  • A Twitter account with more than a million followers
  • A Facebook page with more than 761,000 fans
  • A YouTube channel with more than 55,000 views
  • A Flickr account with more than 800 members
  • A blog – the a fore mentioned Nuts About Southwest – that averages 55,000 views per month

Southwest understands social media and uses social media.  And they believe in its power and effectiveness.

And this dedication to social media is now paying off in a crisis.  This is a lesson for ALL companies.

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10 Responses to “Weighing in on Kevin Smith”

  1. MediaCurves.com conducted a media study among viewers of a news clip featuring Southwest Airlines’ decision to deny Kevin Smith a seat on a flight because he was larger than their size requirements. Results found that favorability for the airline decreased among both healthy-weight and over-weight viewers. Nearly one-third of viewers (32%) indicated that they were less likely to fly on Southwest Airlines due to this incident. More in depth results can be seen at: http://www.mediacurves.com/NationalMediaFocus/J7744-KevinSmithSouthwest/Index.cfm

  2. Are you nuts? The non-apology-apology isn’t working—and it appears to be angering off more people than placating. This doesn’t end well for them.

  3. I agree with John. The only apology that works is we are wrong.

    The Apology he got was we are sorry your fat, and we are sorry we have a horrible policy but we were right anyways.

    Really in the end they should have talked to him privately and never blogged / Twitted about a personal matter in the first place.

    I agree that social media does play in the corporate world but there are some situations that you will come out looking bad if you go public and this is one of them.

  4. Kevin Smith went public – and Southwest responded. They apologized for the way they handled the situation – not that they stuck to their own policies.

    Every situation isn’t one person right and the other wrong. And this is one of them.

    This isn’t a “personal” matter. Not when Kevin Smith has been tweeting about it non-stop for 72 hours and even doing podcasts about it. This is public and Southwest is right to respond on the same forums that Kevin Smith is using.

    While there are many people siding with Kevin Smith – because of his celebrity – there are just as many that think Southwest did the right thing.

  5. The problem is not that they followed their own policies. Rather, the problem is that they capriciously applied a policy that they didn’t apply the countless times Kevin Smith previously flew the airline. As he mentioned, he didn’t buy extra seats because of their “People of Size” policy, but rather that he prefers not sitting right next to other people. (As a frequent user of mass transit, I agree with the sentiment.)

    I don’t think reasonable people disagree with a policy that really large people need two seats if they cannot put down their armrests. I certainly know that if a 500 lb. guy sat next to me, I’d want that policy to be enforced (and I’m no twig). Rather, Smith fell within the “acceptable parameters.” He clearly showed that he was able to fit comfortably in one seat. This humiliating policy applied to him when it was NEVER done to him before. Listen to his podcast and get his side of the story.

    I’m a 6 foot tall, 230 lb. man. Would I have to worry about being classified as a “person of size”? *That’s* the issue—and that’s why this story has traction. I certainly know that I’ll be avoiding Southwest and opting for other airlines when I do fly. JetBlue—not Southwest—is the winner in this PR melee. The other airlines would be smart to kick LUV while they’re down with clever tongue-in-cheek advertising.

  6. I have to side with Southwest on this. I think they have handled this situation really well, while many other airlines would have taken a long time to respond, if they decided to do anything at all.

    Also, having been on a flight where I was seated next to a HUGE person that only purchased one seat, I think Southwest’s policy is fair. The entire 5 hour flight I spent half in my seat and half in the isle.

  7. Hi John:
    Whether the policy is fair is debatable and so is how Southwest let him on and then removed him.

    My post is about how Southwest has handled the PR and social media in light of the storm caused by Kevin Smith’s social media barrage against them. I think they’ve done an excellent job in managing it.

    I’d also like to add that according to reports Kevin Smith is 5’9″ and weighs close to 350 pounds. That is extremely big. And the policy didn’t apply to him before because – as you noted – he usually buys two seat tickets.

    I feel bad for Kevin Smith – but he’s the one who took this public.

    That said, Ben, from Media Curves has an interesting analysis of the reactions of overweight and normal weight people as they watch a TV report on the situation. I don’t know if that speaks to the reaction more broadly, but its grist for the mill.

  8. Sorry, don’t agree. Gen-X and Yers—those who inhabit social networking more than their older counterparts—value sincerity. (It’s one of the draws to the social networking universe.) And although Southwest was quick to respond to Kevin Smith’s Twits, the response was the somewhat typical Corporate-Speak Non-Apology.

    They’re covering for extremely piss-poor employee communication. And people who’ve had to deal with the typical corporate excuse for customer service empathize.

    Again, I’m no where near his girth, but as a media consumer (and worker) I identify with his plight because I’ve dealt with awful customer service among other monolithic organisations. And besides—he did fit Southwest’s criterion—being able to sit in a seat with both arm rests down.

    Plus, they still haven’t addressed his twist in the story—the plight of Natali, his fellow larger passenger who was hassled by Southwest employees.

    Sorry, this is just an awful use social networking for PR purposes and—again—I think this ultimately backfires on them.

  9. Hi John:
    I know you disagree! But I do appreciate your insights and your opinion.

    However, I think it’s easy to write things like “typical Corporate-Speak Non-Apology” because it sounds so cool. But that’s not what happened.

    Southwest is hardly a monolithic corporate company. They sincerely embrace social media and connecting with their passengers. It’s one of the ways they became so successful.

    But even corporations make mistakes. Southwest apologized for the way that the policy made Smith feel. They were right to do that. As I’ve noted could they have handled it differently? Probably.

    But they have been engaging and not hiding. You can agree or disagree with their decision and their policy, but how can you disagree with their willingness to debate and talk it through in public?

  10. I read both “apologies.” They both read like non-apologies. And when you counter it with Smith’s account (coupled with the outright lies he caught Southwest’s employees engaging in)…their immediacy rings hollow. (And whether that mindset is cool or not, I couldn’t tell you. I’m becoming my father as I get older and that process has accelerated since I’ve become a dad.)

    I work in publishing—and in particular a magazine that has fully embraced new media (and especially Twitter). And dealing with Gen X/Y/Millenial Moms in particular—we continually have the need and desire to reach out to them. Yeah, I know print media =/= PR, but they are kissing cousins. And if we went about with a similar lame faux apology for something we did, we’d be rightly called to the carpet for it. I will give kudos for speed in response, but demerits for approach, with additional marks off for ultimate result.

    Southwest has previously had a friendly customer-friendly image. I was mildly addicted to “Airline” when it was on the air. But this seriously called that into account—especially among those of us who aren’t going to win the Kate Moss Award for being slight-of-build.

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