Repercussions of Bellygate

February 17th, 2010

Unless you’ve been pretty sheltered this week, you’ve probably heard about the Kevin Smith/Southwest Air run in that rang out around the world in media stories and people buzzing with phrases like TTTF (too fat to fly). The director and actor said a pilot ejected him from a Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland to Burbank, saying he didn’t fit properly in a single seat. Smith turned to Twitter, then his SModcast and his blog.  Southwest apologizes (sort of). Not good enough. Then Southwest tries again.

Aside from the fact that  the media can’t seem to get enough of another corporation caught short by the outraged tweeting masses, this should be yet another wake up call of the speed by which screw ups travel and escalate today.

As an instant viral publishing tool, Twitter is often the first place we hear a rumble of something big — where news (or rumors) break — so it’s followed closely followed by the mainstream media that then “vets” the info. This summer I was in a store in Tahoe when someone in the store read a tweet that Michael Jackson had died. We all headed for a TV or went to CNN on our phones to verify the info. Not everything trending on Twitter is accurate — remember Goldblum?

Bad personal experiences for people we like at the hands of corporations is David and Goliath stuff. And we consumers love those stories. We love to rant about injustice. We can’t get enough of it.

Twitter is the early warning siren and reaches well beyond those actively engaged on Twitter — it is closely followed by the media and bloggers and it can explode the customer complaint horror stories many times faster than what companies previously suffered just at the hands of a few irate bloggers (remember Dell, Kryptonite) to potentially devastating effect.

Southwest is a company that has been active and strong in the social space. They’ve handled difficult situations well.  But they’re not immune. They just found out what happens when you piss off a guy with a rabid fanbase and a Twitter account with 1.6M followers. Smith has a nimble intellect and savage wit and his tweets and SModcasts are entertaining.  One of his tweets had me laughing out loud:  “You [messed] with the wrong sedentary processed-foods eater!” But chances are Southwest didn’t enjoy this exchange as much as the rest of us.

If the arbitrary nature of this online customer movement seems unfair, too bad.  Get used to it. The genie is not going back in the bottle.

How companies succeed in the future will depend on how they embrace and navigate this new socially-empowered customer culture. The answers don’t lie in merely having a company Twitter account. And they definitely can’t be solved purely through social media monitoring. These are just tools. Tools that let you listen. And respond. The key is what a company learns from the listening, how it applies those learnings and then how it communicates those learnings to its customers that will rescue its reputation and make it a stronger company.

For Smith, the publicity may be a windfall given his new movie “Cop Out,” opens in theaters Feb. 26.