Southwest Responds After Ejecting Man from Flight

2020-10-18 by Ronn Torossian

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.

Ronn Torossian: Insights from a Native New Yorker and CEO of 5WPR

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 250 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider, and a recipient of Crain’s New York 2021 Most Notable in Marketing & PR. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and has authored two editions of his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations," which is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities