Movie director Kevin Smith gives Southwest Air a Twitter beatdown

February 16, 2010 6:00 AM EST

Movie director Kevin Smith is giving Southwest Air a lesson in what happens when you humiliate someone who has 1.6 million Twitter followers. In the words of one of Smith's movies: "I'm disgusted and repulsed, and I can't look away."

According to the story as described in profane detail on Smith's Twitter account and podcast and blog, Smith boarded a Southwest Air flight bound from Oakland, California, to Burbank on Saturday. After he was settled in his seat between two other passengers, a Southwest employee asked him to leave for safety reasons, saying he was taking up too much space.

Smith left, but fired back with all his social media barrels.

The events demonstrate once again that Twitter and other social media can become powerful tools to be used against companies by angry customers. Companies can learn from the mistakes Southwest made in handling the incident.

Smith told the tale in a barrage of furious tweets that started at 5:52 pm Saturday. I'm adding paragraph formatting and replaced foul language with asterisks:

Dear @SouthwestAir - I know I'm fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?

Dear @SouthwestAir, I flew out in one seat, but right after issuing me a standby ticket, Oakland Southwest attendant Suzanne (wouldn't give last name) told me Captain Leysath deemed me a "safety risk".

Again: I'm way fat... But I'm not THERE just yet.

But if I am, why wait til my bag is up, and I'm seated WITH ARM RESTS DOWN. In front of a packed plane with a bunch of folks who'd already I.d.ed me as "Silent Bob." So, @SouthwestAir, go **** yourself. I broke no regulation, offered no "safety risk" (what, was I gonna roll on a fellow passenger?). I was wrongly ejected from the flight (even Suzanne eventually agreed). And **** your apologetic $100 voucher, @SouthwestAir. Thank God I don't embarrass easily (bless you, JERSEY GIRL training). But I don't sulk off either: so everyday, some new ***-you Tweets for @SouthwestAir. Wanna tell me I'm too wide for the sky? Totally cool. But fair warning, folks: IF YOU LOOK LIKE ME, YOU MAY BE EJECTED FROM @SOUTHWESTAIR.

He later posted a 88-minute podcast describing the incident in detail.

The argument raged back and forth between Smith, armed with a Twitter account, blog, and podcast, and Southwest, armed with its Nuts About Southwest blog and Twitter account with 1 million followers.

So who's right here?

I'm a Kevin Smith fan. I've seen all his movies several times -- not just Clerks and Chasing Amy but also Mallrats and Jersey Girl. I subscribe to his podcasts and Twitter stream.

Moreover, I'm a fat man myself.

And I've had a lot of bad customer service experiences on airlines.

So I have great sympathy for what Smith went through.

Still, I'm not prepared to blame Southwest in this incident. I just don't have the facts of the situation.

Instead, I want to talk about how the incident exploded into a public relations mess for Southwest.

Southwest's first response on its blog was clumsy, titled "Not So Silent Bob." The headline alone -- a reference to the actor-writer-director's most famous character, Silent Bob -- was a bad idea. The headline makes light of the situation and wouldn't do anything to pacify Smith, his outraged fans, and sympathetic fat people everywhere.

Southwest's second response, headlined "My Conversation With Kevin Smith", was much better. It's respectful and it takes the situation seriously.

Was it enough to defuse the situation? As I write this, it's too soon to tell. Smith only tweeted a few times after the last Southwest blog post. In one tweet he notes that CNN.com site visitors are siding 58% with Southwest.

Later, he blogs that he's tired of the whole argument, but still not satisfied with Southwest's reactions.

How could Southwest have handled this better? I turned for insight to my friend Becky Carroll, head of Petra Consulting Group/Customers Rock, who consults with companies about using social media for customer service.

She notes that Twitter makes it easy for customers to stir up outrage over bad customer service experiences. "People get frustrated with the customer service experience. They have Twitter at their fingertips, and before you can fasten your seat belts, they're off and tweeting," she said.

Companies should respond to complaint-storms as soon as they can. Toyota, for example, multiplied its problems by failing to respond early enough to recent reports of dangerous mechanical failures with its cars. (That controversy was not fueled by social media, but the principle still applies.)

On the other hand, the first response shouldn't be defensive. Sometimes it's best for companies just to let customers know they're listening. "Sometime you need to let the fever die down a little bit before you jump in. Sometimes if you jump in and try to defend yourself quickly, you make it worse. Take a cautious approach and say, 'we're listening, we hear you.' Give your customers a chance to stand up for you too," she said.

That's a mistake that Southwest made. They jumped right in to defend themselves -- even before they talked to Smith. They should have talked to Smith before making any public statements beyond letting people know they're listening.

This kind of thing has happened before, to other companies. Last year, Twitter users were outraged at Amazon.com for removing gay and lesbian-themed books from its main product search engine. Furious tweets raged until Amazon stepped in to declare it was just a database glitch. Also last year, Heather Armstrong, who writes the popular blog Dooce.com, used Twitter to complain about Whirlpool customer service and got her fans riled up.

Twitter complaint-storms are only gong to get more frequent, as people -- especially celebrities -- get more familiar with using Twitter to stir support for complaints. Companies need to learn to deal with the bad weather.