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How to protect your business from Twitter damage

When Southwest Airlines turfed Kevin Smith off a flight last year for being too fat, the American film director and actor, known for his role as Silent Bob in Clerks and Mallrats, was anything but silent.

CARLO ALLEGRI/AP

With Twitter hitting 100 million active users, according to their latest report, it's a force companies can't ignore. If customers believe they have been treated badly, with one tweet, they can let the world know instantly.

When Southwest Airlines Co. turfed Kevin Smith off a flight last year for being too fat, the American film director and actor, known for his role as Silent Bob in Clerks and Mallrats, was anything but silent. His immediate and indignant tweets to more than 1.6 million of his followers ("What, was I gonna roll on a fellow passenger?") were instantly retweeted around the world.

Mr. Smith had purchased two tickets to comply with Southwest's "customers of size" policy, but had boarded as a standby passenger on an earlier flight that only had one available seat. He was already seated when asked to deplane for safety reasons. Despite multiple apologetic tweets from Southwest, and the offer of a $100 (U.S.) voucher, which Mr. Smith rejected, the incident was a public relations fiasco for Southwest.

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So what can companies do to redeem themselves if they get caught up in a virtual storm like this? Toronto public relations guru Mat Wilcox, founder of the Wilcox Group and personal adviser to top Canadian CEOs, shared some advice.

Could Southwest Airlines have handled the Kevin Smith brouhaha better?

It was tough for them, because they were doing a balancing act. There's an angry person, who's very vocal, and hundreds of thousands of customers who really want their own seat. Whatever they said would incur the wrath of one side or the other.

But a $100 voucher isn't going to do it. An honest empathetic apology weighs more with the vast majority of people on social media than anything else you can do. The trick about an apology is how humble you are.

You can be funny or self-deprecating, but explain your side. For instance, saying, 'You know what, it's complicated because we have thousands of people who paid for their seat and are worried about [the safety factor] On the other hand, we respect Kevin and his situation, and we don't want to disrupt his enjoyable passage on Southwest.'

Sometimes the right thing is just to say, 'Sorry you had that experience.' Sometimes that's all people want to hear.

What if the person complaining wasn't a tweeting celebrity? Does a regular person have the same kind of power on Twitter?

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You don't have to be a celebrity to be effective using this medium. I had a situation with an airline recently, sent out a tweet and in 10 seconds got a response of 'How can I help you?' Twitter and social media are the new way of dealing with customer complaints. Many, many individuals are using Twitter to complain, and companies are responding. You can also do just the opposite and be positive if you've had a great experience. It's our new world, so get used to it.

What can companies do to redeem themselves if they get caught up in a Twitter storm of negativity?

The first thing they should do is deal with it. What we see so many times is that companies tend to not deal with the issue until they get the facts. It could take days, or months, for a public investigation. Who cares? The fact is, it happened.

So say, 'I'm really sorry. We don't know what happened, but it's not who we are as a company. We're sorry.' And really mean it. Don't just shoot out some fake old thing like a lot of companies do.

Be empathetic and talk; have a two-way dialogue about it. It's not like in the old days, where you used to push out press releases and it was one-way communication. Nope. Life is two-way communication now. And it's immediate. You don't have five minutes to respond. You don't have 30 seconds.

Is that why many companies miss out?

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Absolutely. A lot of big companies, Lululemon Athletica Inc. for example, have 50 people just focused on the Internet and social media. They're not spending on advertising. Major corporations like Starbucks Corp. and McDonald's Restaurants are all recognizing that this is our new community.

Is it realistic to expect customer service to be that impeccable all the time?

Some people are just cranky, unhappy people, and you're never going to fix them. But you need to recognize who is saying what. If it's someone who has integrity and really just wants a problem fixed, you'd better deal with it as a company, because it will go viral.

Is there anything companies can do to protect themselves?

Yes. I give a lot of speeches on social media and I'll ask the audience: 'How many of you have a Facebook page, how many of you are on Twitter?' Usually half of the crowd timidly put their hands up.

Well, if you're in any kind of a business that is dealing with customers or where there's potential for harm, whatever it may be, you'd better establish yourself in social media now. Actually, you should have established yourself three years ago. I don't care what kind of company you are, you're going to face some sort of issue at some point. The reality is you have to at least establish a toe hold, because when you're scrambling to deal with any kind of a crisis or issue, you can't suddenly think, 'Oh boy, we need Twitter or a Facebook page.' It has to be in place already.

I first realized this when a US Airways Group Inc. pilot made an emergency landing on the Hudson in 2009. This was a major worldwide event, and it took US Airways four or five hours to respond. But within 30 seconds, people were on social media, talking about it, sending photos, circumventing the media.

The person who became the de facto spokesperson for US Airways was an ex-flight attendant so everybody, including media, was going to her to find out information – what were the safety and landing procedures, what would the flight attendants be doing ... and she was answering those questions. She wasn't the spokesperson for that company, she was an ex-employee. Imagine what she might have said about that brand if she was a cranky ex-employee. Or had been fired. They were very, very lucky.

That's the moment when I realized that the whole world of crisis management had just changed.

Who should companies have on their social media front line? Aren't customer service reps often on the bottom end of the pay scale?

Too many companies will hire interns or co-ordinators – and I have nothing against them – but the problem is that there's usually no link to what's happening strategically in the office of the CEO. How they feel, their passion for the brand, how they would manage on a day-to-day basis is critical. They are the link to your people. So make sure whoever you choose to be your spokesperson on these sites really understands the company.

What's essential?

Be human. You can't just always be pushing the corporation. No one cares and no one listens.

So should it be someone who's actually connected to the company and not just hired?

I think so. It really needs to be integral, if not the most prominent part of your customer service. Look at Dell. They do all their customer service online now. If you have a problem, they answer. I hate when there's a delay before I get an answer.

We have to be a little bit fair to big companies too. One of the problems with expecting instant gratification is that we forget that there's real people with real hearts running these companies. They're not trying to be bad or mean. They're trying to figure it out, so sometimes we have to give a little bit too. Instant gratification is very hard on all fronts. Sometimes you have to wait a few minutes.

What bugs you?

I hate voicemail – getting pushed from department to department. That's a logistics issue that a company has to deal with. If they see enough of those concerns on social media about it, they'd better fix it. The younger upstarts, the online guys, get it. Really smart savvy companies are monitoring what's going on and dealing with it immediately.

How much damage can a bad tweet do?

It's immeasurable. It can be hundreds of millions of dollars. And if the company doesn't respond correctly, it's absolutely awful. What happens in a situation like that is it picks up speed and starts escalating. It's very hard to stop. You have to come in quickly and deal [with it]

Look at [former U.S. Representative]Anthony Weiner. That was the most brutal story because he dragged it out for days. Take your cuts early and fast, and [spend]the next nine days explaining. Don't try to do the opposite, because your customers are way too smart.

That's got to be hard for a lot of CEOs to swallow.

What's hard is that they feel they're not getting their side of the story out. In a very big company, it takes more time to piece it together.

And don't forget that you can run an amazing company and still have one person mess up your brand. Take Domino's Pizza Inc. and those kids who decided to video themselves doing disgusting things to a pizza. The estimated damage was $15-million, because of two young kids who were joking around.

What many companies don't recognize is that it's going to happen constantly. This isn't a one-off event. With cellphones, everything is getting easier and easier to do. There are no secrets any more. Everything is open.

Transparency is the really critical lesson. Be prepared, because it's going to happen every single day now.

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