February 13 was like every other day at Southwest Airlines. That is, until they refused to seat Kevin Smith on his flight from Oakland to Burbank. The reason was because his extra large size would hamper the ‘comfort and safety’ of other passengers. He was of the opinion that he offered no ‘safety risk’ as he fit between the armrests of the seat. He blew off steam by tweeting about the inconvenience and embarrassment he felt at having been removed from the plane.
Turns out Kevin Smith was no ordinary passenger. An award winning Director of movies like 'Dogma', 'Chasing Amy', & 'Cop Out', he has over a million followers on Twitter. Tweet tweet!
What ensued was a potential PR nightmare for Southwest (Toyota anybody?).
The Story Spread Like Wildfire Online
The intensity of this incident was evident from the fact that in a span of 6 days it had 3,043 blog mentions, 5,133 forum posts and 15,528 tweets. Online media had the majority of the coverage of this event. Fortunately, for Southwest, their swift and continuous response (that too on a Saturday), ensured that the nightmare was short-lived. In fact the time before Kevin Smith’s first tweet and Southwest’s response was 16 minutes. The maximum impact of this story was 2 days before it petered out a few days later.
View the complete timeline of the tweets between Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines.
Overall Sentiment On Twitter
36% supported Southwest Airlines’ move. They believed the airline handled the event well. 26% were of the opinion that it was poor customer service/response on the airline's part. In other words, they expected the airline to handle the situation better. 38% said that they won’t fly Southwest Airlines.
Southwest Airlines’ response was planned and well executed. As mentioned before, Southwest responded in 16 minutes after the initial complaint with an apology. After additional rants, Southwest responded again 14 minutes later. In the morning Southwest tweeted over an hour later trying to let Kevin Smith know they were listening and trying to engage with their Customer Relations VP. The next morning they tried to call as well. The blog post on the incident was posted the next day and tweeted. Because of the response, even though Smith’s version got the lion’s share of mainstream press reports, Southwest’s response was noted (see LA Times story Incident #1 and Fatgate #2).
Southwest’s response was textbook real time marketing and customer service. They responded quickly and in a friendly way. As a result, many of the customer responses on the Southwest blog were very sympathetic, especially after Smith continued to pound away. Southwest did not block any negative comments on their blog. They apologized to Kevin Smith and offered a refund, but restated their longstanding policy of charging 2 tickets for larger people on full flights. Social influence played an important role here as Southwest Airlines admitted that it had to more carefully implement their ‘delicate’ seating policy.
Popularity Chart: Mentions Of Southwest Airlines & Kevin Smith
The popularity of discussions around the incident took a major leap on February 14th, owing to numerous mentions on blogs, forums, news and Twitter. On February 15th, the popularity fell drastically and has been heading downhill ever since. The reason is because issues between Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines have been discussed at length in a completely transparent manner.
Overall Sentiment On Blogs
Comments on the blogosphere were remarkably neutral to the incident. About 31% reacted negatively to the incident and 17% reacted positively.
What this story highlights is the fact that influencers need to be listened to and engaged with as they have the power to potentially cause serious harm to your brand. Kevin Smith has over a million followers on Twitter and he is a celebrity. This makes him an influencer and opinion leader. Southwest Airlines’ prompt response to Kevin Smith’s tweet was its best move. Around 8 tweets were exchanged between both parties after which the airline wrote a blog post narrating the events and offering an apology. This led to rapid fall-off in interest with many taking Southwest’s side in the dispute.
"Companies can choose to not factor in the social influence of customers, but will be putting themselves at risk. It’s just a matter of time before a company has a social blowup, and by not trying to handle priority customers, could cause a small issue to quickly escalate into a larger one." - Jeremiah Owyang, Partner, Customer Strategy Altimeter Group.
Methodology: We analyzed tweets posted between 13th February and 16th February. We initially analyzed the list of positive keywords associated with the Kevin smith incident. These users supported Southwest airlines & they felt that Southwest handled this issue well. We also analyzed the data from Twitter using the following keywords and assigned categories as depicted in the graph above.
Support SW airlines keywords: ("Southwest") AND ("Kevin smith") AND ("like" OR "love" OR "win" OR "awesome" OR "great" OR "best" OR "rocks" OR "support")
We followed the same methodology for negative and neutral sentiment too. Here are keywords associated with negative sentiment, These users felt that the SW airlines service has poor service.
Poor Customer Service: ("Southwest") AND ("Kevin smith") AND ("poor service" OR "fail" OR "bad" OR "Inferior" OR "hate" OR "insane" OR "sad" OR "dislike" OR "disaster")
We discovered there was another trend associated with this incident. Some users felt that they won’t fly SW airlines again.
I won’t fly with Southwest: "southwest" AND "Kevin smith" AND ( "never travel" OR " don't fly " OR "never fly" OR "won't fly " OR " never try" OR "don't try" OR "don't travel" OR "never going" )
Contributed by Nallai Wickreman and Jade Agnet D'costa, Social Media Marketing, Position²