Southwest Airlines: When Offline Meets Online

There was a time when Southwest Airlines were the darlings of social media. The numbers and the feel good stories were numerous and plentiful. However, Southwest Airlines notwithstanding,  employees far and wide, seemed  to have never received the memo about the impact of social and digital within the organization. Alas, some never seem to or ever will get that memo. The memo is simple. In this new digital age, everyone is always under a microscope, a microphone, and a magnifying glass. Southwest seems to be the poster child for this transgression.

When social becomes the conduit for airline passengers who feel they have been wronged, social media becomes the vessel to take that message to the masses.  It’s funny and somewhat ironic, but if it were not for social media, the perception of Southwest Airlines as the gold standard for airline travel would probably be pretty intact.

3 recent cases come to mind.

1) Kevin Smith, writer/director, get’s thrown off a Southwest flight for being too fat. He immediately starts tweeting about it and the issue goes from smoldering to flammable to toxic and media outlets immediately pick up on it. The airlines tries to make it right and apologizes.

2) Billie Joe Armstrong, singer from Green Day, gets kicked off of a Southwest flight for baggy pants and tweets about it. The media pick up on it and the issue goes from bad to worse and then the airlines apologizes.

3) Leisha Hailey actress, gets kicked off a Southwest flight for kissing her companion and she tweets about it. The media picks up on it, the issue goes viral, and the airlines apologizes.

What are the lessons?

1. You may be the gold standard of social media engagement but that doesn’t mean you can escape criticism.

2. Every employee needs to understand the implications of a customer situation spiraling out of control when that customer uses social media to feed the flames.

2.(a) Every employee needs to understand that every customer is now capable of voicing their displeasure and their bad experiences online. Even if it was a misunderstanding. Thus the ramification of every action needs to be measured.

3. Corporate social media policies need to include triage components for customer situations that go awry. $100 gift vouchers might not cut it.

4. Sometimes the resolution will not be pretty no matter what you do and sometimes the positive resolution never gets told via social.

5. We need to learn from previous situations where customers have taken to using social media to voice their displeasure.

6. The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing. Offline and online need to coexist harmoniously.

At some point, screwing up and then apologizing for it, can get old. We know about the experiences of stars who tweeted their displeasure, but are there more that we don’t know about? Should Southwest be the fashion police? Should they be the judge of what is considered obese? Should they be imparting their morals on their passengers?

Who is right? Who has the power?  Those that have access to social networks versus those that can’t defend themselves?


5 Responses to “Southwest Airlines: When Offline Meets Online”

  1. 1 Daria Steigman September 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Good post, Marc, through I have to quibble with the assertion that Southwest Airlines is “the gold standard of social media engagement.” I think that’s an invention of (some) marketers and business folks looking for early proof-of-concept case studies.

    Southwest Airlines may be good at some aspects of online conversation, but engagement implies that #2-6 are also in place. If you’re spending half your time using your social media capital to send out public mea culpas, the engagement piece (not to mention any enchantment) is missing.

  2. 2 marc meyer September 28, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    @Daria Great point. I think what I needed to add, was the gold standard in the airlines industry, though jetblue is not too shabby. Perhaps, to your point, SW is the gold standard of social media mea culpas….

  3. 3 Daria Steigman September 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    I think, Marc, that your post (and the Southwest example) points to the very big difference between deploying a social media team to talk to stakeholders (i.e., a social brand) and taking the internal steps necessary to be a truly social business.

  4. 4 find your sport November 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly helpful & it helped me out much. I’m hoping to present something back and help others like you aided me.

  5. 5 Larry Kaul January 20, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Does anybody really believe that Southwest threw somebody off a plane for wearing baggy pants or kissing?

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Marc Meyer is a Digital and Social Media Strategist at DRMG. This is my personal blog where I share observations, thoughts and opinions that are all my own.


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