What Kevin Smith means for the future of PR

After the film director is kicked off a plane, being deemed too overweight to fly without purchasing an additional seat, a Twitter-based customer service nightmare ensues.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
Director Kevin Smith accompanied this mobile photo with 'Look how fat I am on your plane! Quick! Throw me off!' Twitter/@thatkevinsmith

On Saturday, the crew of a Southwest Airlines flight between the California cities of Oakland and Burbank asked a passenger to leave the plane before takeoff because it deemed him too overweight to fly. Unfortunately, that passenger happened to be Clerks and Chasing Amy director Kevin Smith, who has more than 1.5 million Twitter followers and was willing to make sure that they all heard all about it.

"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?" Smith asked in a heavily quoted tweet on Saturday evening.

Smith eventually posted dozens of tweets (and counting) about the incident-- "The @SouthwestAir Diet. How it works: you're publicly shamed into a slimmer figure. Crying the weight right off has never been easier!"--many containing extremely colorful language.

Gossip powerhouse TMZ picked up the story. Southwest, which also has more than a million Twitter followers and uses the service for customer relations, posted a blog entry apologizing to Smith and admitting that the situation was poorly handled, to which Smith--who says he was seated with his seat belt buckled and both armrests down--wrote a rebuttal on his well-trafficked blog.

"Mr. Smith originally purchased two Southwest seats on a flight from Oakland to Burbank--as he's been known to do when traveling on Southwest," the airline's blog entry explained. "He decided to change his plans and board an earlier flight to Burbank, which technically means flying standby...When the time came to board Mr. Smith, we had only a single seat available for him to occupy. Our pilots are responsible for the safety and comfort of all customers on the aircraft and therefore made the determination 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."

This may be the best example we've seen yet of how Twitter and other forms of new-media mass communication are shaping that old industry known as public relations. Nobody walks around with a Twitter follower count or blog URL painted on his or her forehead, and many extremely popular bloggers still live in relative physical anonymity, which means that the customer relations business is like a game of Minesweeper--you can never be sure what might blow up in your face.

PR and customer service are two different divisions of a company. But this incident shows how, in the Digital Age, the two are increasingly overlapping. With Twitter, many companies are conducting customer relations in the public eye, and a company's response to a high-profile disgruntled customer may require dispatching the PR team. Good communication between the two is obviously key.

At the same time, Smith's situation may be a fairly unique one. He's a high-profile individual with a loyal cult following both on and off Twitter, as well as a loudmouthed and outspoken public figure, but he isn't as recognizable by face as some others who fit that bill--such as Stephen Colbert, Ashton Kutcher, or heaven forbid, John Mayer. (Smith is well-known for playing the recurring "Silent Bob" character in his films, but I imagine there are plenty of people out there who haven't seen any of them.)

The issue of overweight airline passengers is also a particularly sensitive one, with consumers often divided down the middle as to whether it's offensive or practical for an airline to charge them more or require them to buy two seats. Consequently, Smith didn't just look like a whiny celebrity.

What the whole thing amounted to was about the worst scenario imaginable. An airline was awkwardly executing a controversial policy with a passenger, and that passenger happened to be one of Twitter's most popular and opinionated users. So while this is a cautionary tale that deserves to go into many a "don't screw up" lesson for professionals who regularly dabble in customer service--had Southwest not handled the situation clumsily, Smith's argument would be much less sympathetic--the scenario is unlikely to replicate itself soon.

Meanwhile, Smith isn't letting this one go. He's challenged Southwest to show up to the set of the Comedy Central late-night talk show "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and bring an airline seat along so that he can sit in it and prove his point.

At this point, Southwest's executives might do well to start thinking of an equally outlandish way to play along and do some image repair.

This story was expanded at 12:05 p.m. PT.