Of all the years, 2020 is definitely not the time for an airline to get negative press, and someone apparently trying to get “internet famous” took advantage of that. Reports are coming in from various media outlets that, last week, a “black man wearing a Trump 2020 mask was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight.”
That headline has all the right keywords to grab eyeballs and start arguments in the comments sections, so you can bet it got a push from several online outlets. As soon as they see that, people have a visceral reaction, long before reading the next line of the story, and realizing that communication dynamic is the first step in crafting a PR response.
Here’s what’s being reported:
The man, seated and speaking with flight attendants, had apparently lowered his mask to eat some snacks. His face mask was pulled down to his chin while he ate. He was politely confronted by airline personnel while someone in the background demands, “Tell us the policy that says he can’t eat with his mask off??” This rhetorical question is immediately followed by, “It’s the hat and the mask, not the eating…”
Shortly after the video of the incident was published to social media, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted it, offering scathing comments about the airline: “This is disgusting. I’ve been on a thousand flights in the last few months, and everyone lowers their mask to eat…” Predictably, after Trump Jr. spoke out, the incident exploded across multiple social media platforms.
Fortunately for Southwest, the company anticipated such displays and reactions and immediately released a statement offering their side of the story:
“Our reports indicate that (this customer) was asked repeatedly by more than one employee at different times to wear a mask. The customer did not comply with our crew’s multiple requests, including boarding the flight before seated… He was removed from the flight and placed on another after (assuring us) that he would comply (with our policy). We regret the inconvenience the situation created for all involved…”
By then, many people had already made up their minds based on ideological lines, which would muddy the PR waters. However, that plain fact is, the headline and the accompanying visuals do not create a good look for Southwest, and the company had to respond, regardless of who people wanted to believe.
The reality of life in social media America is simple: There will always be people looking to get “internet famous” at the expense of a popular brand. Be that as it may, and regardless of the inherent unfairness of that situation, it is the reality, and brands need to be prepared to respond.
The websites covering this incident likely understood the “why” and “how” of the event, but they also knew the headline would get the clicks, so it was definitely going to be published. Companies need to understand this dynamic and prepare accordingly or risk an ongoing consumer PR or social media PR fiasco.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR.
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