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Apologies, Repentance, and Social Media

Posted by Hal Thomas on February 24, 2010

Kevin SmithOne of the big stories in social media last week was Clerk's director Kevin Smith's Twitter tirade after being bounced from a Southwest Airlines flight allegedly for being too fat to fly. As you might expect, there's a lot of he said/she said insofar as the details of the actual incident are concerned. (If you are unfamiliar with this story, check out the related links at the bottom of this post.)

The goal of this post isn't to take a side concerning whether Kevin Smith is too fat or not too fat to fly, nor is it to debate the fairness of Southwest Airlines' policy concerning its personal space allocation for each passenger. This post is about the empowerment of the individual consumer due largely to social media and the aggregate power of internet search.

A Brief History Lesson

A little more than a decade ago, if an individual consumer had an issue with the way they were treated by a company their options were relatively limited: speak to a supervisor, write a letter, or call a customer relations hotline. And if the consumer was unsatisfied with the company's response, they had little recourse beyond telling their family, friends, and co-workers about their negative experience.

Historically, companies have not had to worry much about bad word of mouth from individual consumers because the average consumer is limited largely by geography in his/her ability to exert mass influence. And although a disgruntled customer could phone or email others about their negative experience, the average person's circle of influence remained relatively small; limited mostly to the people with whom they physically interact. In other words, in days gone by the price of pissing off the average consumer was relatively small.

Power to the People

Today, thanks to the power of the internet, it is relatively easy for the average consumer to acquire a much larger circle of influence. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the like have placed the power to reach the masses into the hands of the people, and the aggregate power of internet search has brought all those people together. It's like having a thousand voices together in one room, whereas before they were like a thousand voices in a thousand separate rooms. Individually those voices may seem quiet and insignificant, but together they can be deafening.

Which brings us back to the Kevin Smith-Southwest Airlines debacle.

The Age of Accountability

Some have suggested that Kevin Smith abused his "social power" by continuing to trash Southwest Airlines online even after they apologized. As one blogger commented:

We EXPECT, DEMAND, WANT big and small from companies online – but when it comes to us, the consumer, we apparently get a free pass when it comes to RESPECT, UNDERSTANDING and RESPONSIBILITY online.

Unfortunately, I think this is a cop out. Not only is it too easy to vilify the foul-mouthed famous fat guy in this story, but it completely misses the point. This is a story about a consumer who had bad experience with a company. He was initially polite and went through all the traditional channels in an attempt to receive a satisfactory explanation for what had happened to him.

Ultimately, the traditional channels broke down and the consumer was left feeling wronged. So rather than take things lying down, Smith leveraged the means at his disposal to hold Southwest Airlines accountable. He refused to be marginalized.

Kevin Smith is not the first consumer to leverage the power of social media after being wronged by an airline (he just happens to be the first celebrity, which is why it made national news). Last year, musician Dave Carroll became a YouTube viral sensation after writing two songs about his experience with United Airlines (they broke his $3500 guitar and then refused to replace it). Certainly it can be argued that Carroll's online approach was more "socially responsible" than Smith's, however, despite millions of views on YouTube, Carroll's plight never received much attention from national media.

Apology vs. Repentance

The last takeaway here is the difference between an apology and repentance. Apologies, for the most part, are worth very little. Apologies have become part of well-crafted PR campaigns. When a company or a celebrity royally screws up, issuing the obligatory mea culpa is part of what they do to make the situation go away. It's what they do so that they can get back to doing what it is they were doing before the scandal.

Repentance, on the other hand, is a different animal. Webster's defines repenting as turning from sin and dedicating oneself to the amendment of one's life; to change one's mind. That's not the same as apologizing.

I submit that the reason Kevin Smith continued to berate Southwest Airlines online even after they apologized was that he wasn't interested in an apology; he wanted repentance. And in today's culture of Mel Gibsons and Tiger Woods and politicians of the week, can you blame him?

The implications for companies should be clear: talk is cheap. Don't just say you're sorry; demonstrate what you are changing to ensure that it doesn't happen again. Because if you don't change anything, then you aren't really sorry.

At the end of the day, this is my hope for the power of social media: that it gives power to individual voices; that it holds companies accountable for their actions. No one should be marginalized.


Kevin Smith vs. Southwest Airlines links:

  • Kevin Smith's Smodcast #106 - Talks about the incident shortly after it happened. (Warning: F-bomb fest.)
  • Kevin Smith's Blog - Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3
  • Southwest Airlines Blog - Part 1 and Part 2
  • If you want to know anything else, Google it.


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