It was the airline complaint heard ‘round the Twittersphere.
Conservative pundit Ann Coulter paid $30 extra for more legroom in the exit row and pre-booked an aisle seat on a Delta Air Lines flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to West Palm Beach, Fla.
Delta moved her from her preferred aisle seat to a window seat in the same row.
On the cab ride from the airport, Coulter dispatched a series of angry tweets on the experience, featuring cameos of fellow passengers and a flight attendant that she photographed on the flight.
With that, Atlanta-based Delta and Coulter climbed into the boxing ring of social media, surrounded by thousands of digital spectators cheering and booing via tweets and other commentary. It became a toxic debate about civility and privacy, passenger frustration with airlines, and liberal versus conservative perspectives.
It also raises questions as to when should companies choose to engage with a critic - especially one with the influence of Coulter - and what happens if they don’t?
Social media experts say a good response can enhance a company’s brand, but if they get it wrong, the trolling may erode consumer trust.
“When you engage on social media, you always have to think the whole world is watching,” said Chris Schroder, president of public relations firm SPR Atlanta.
Delta’s social media team initially responded quickly with a brief apology via Twitter on Saturday evening: “I understand how this must be extremely frustrating, Ann. I’d like to extend my sincere apology,” the tweet said.
But it took until the following evening before the company’s corporate communications team finalized a more extensive response, which took an assertive stance against Coulter’s actions.
“We are sorry that the customer did not receive the seat she reserved and paid for. More importantly, we are disappointed that the customer has chosen to publicly attack our employees and other customers by posting derogatory and slanderous comments and photos in social media. Her actions are unnecessary and unacceptable.” The company also tweeted a similar message.
“Companies see these types of face-offs as either they will be burnt to ashes, or they will find a strategic way to prevail,” said Eric Schiffer, CEO of Irvine, Ca.-based Reputation Management Consultants.
Delta put a focus on defending customers and employees who were targeted in Coulter’s tweets, and responded in spite of evidence showed Coulter had no plans to back down.
On Tuesday during an appearance on Fox & Friends, Coulter called Delta’s tweets in response to her “snarky” and said “they may think this is very witty to be firing back at me on Twitter after behaving rudely.”
The incident had been in the national spotlight since Delta’s statement Sunday night. One headline read: “Ann Coulter Learns That Delta Air Lines Isn’t Afraid to Fight Back.” A CNN article said Delta “willingly picked a social media street fight” with Coulter.
Schiffer praised Delta’s response.
“Delta scored big,” Schiffer said. “They had the guts to use strategy and tap their humanity… to stay in tact as a brand against an onslaught from one of the most famous political attackers of all time.”
He said Delta showed a level of grace and likeability, in an era where it’s hard for an airline to be seen as a victim, or right on anything in these situations. In fact most people are cursing the sky at airlines.”
Delta received some blow-back
The risk to a company not responding can be significant. “When you’re under fire and you’re being falsely accused and you don’t respond, you are cementing that accusation and labeling it as truth,” Schiffer said. “So in damage control mode, and when pressure mounts, you must fight back.”
Delta’s response did prompt some blow-back, including tweets criticizing the airline for blaming the victim. Coulter tweeted Monday: “I bet the @delta corporate office LOVES having SJWs running their customer relations,” using an acronym for the pejorative use of “social justice warriors.”
Some felt Delta could have been more measured in its response.
“I think they started off fine,” Schroder said. I think they degenerated into ire… They joined the fight a little bit and I don’t think that enhanced Delta’s reputation or their image.”
It’s not the first time a company has found itself in hot water due to criticism on social media that goes viral.
Other examples in the airline industry include the United Airlines dragging incident, which included a video that was seen around the world. An initial United memo to employees about the incident garnered quick rebuke for calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” The CEO later apologized.
Companies have to consider whether responding could “make it worse,” said Cohn & Wolfe managing director Candace McCaffery. “Sometimes you can cause more trouble by throwing your brand into the discussion rather than staying out of it.”
But in the recent Delta incident with Coulter, “your employees are your brand. Allowing attacks on their employees to go unanswered would have been the wrong thing to do.”
CNN has also encountered an onslaught of criticism via social media — including directly from President Donald Trump.
The cable news channel issued a statement earlier this month after Trump tweeted a video showing a body slam targeting CNN, saying: “It is a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters.”
And Atlanta-based Coca-Cola last year faced criticism from Russians and Ukranians over a posting by the beverage company on a Russian social media network, showing an outdated map of Russia that omitted Crimea and Kaliningrad, according to the New York Times. The incident sparked a hashtag #BanCocaCola on Ukrainian social networks.
Coke initially changed the map, then deleted it and apologized, the Times reported.
Schroder said the best practice for handling criticism is with a “classy statement response, and it’s always best to do it with humor if possible.”
That’s the approach JC Penney took in 2013 when it was criticized online for a billboard advertisement featuring a teapot that some believed looked like Hitler, according to news coverage. The retailer tweeted light-hearted responses including: “Totally unintentional. If we’d designed the kettle to look like something, we would’ve gone w/a snowman :)”
Social media brings opportunities and risks for companies in many ways. Airlines and other companies value the speediness of responses they can give via social media, which can make the company look better if done well publicly.
Delta invites customers to voice complaints and concerns on social media, first through its previous @DeltaAssist channel on Twitter, and now through its @Delta account on Twitter with a profile that reads: “We’re listening around the clock, 7 days a week.”
But the risks are more apparent when a high-profile personality like Coulter uses social media to voice complaints.
“The smartest brands would want that to be done one-on-one and not public, because it can be misconstrued,” Schiffer said. What’s more, complaints on Twitter are “up there in perpetuity” for other potential customers to search.
With the evolving world of social media, Schroder said, “Each day it’s another lesson and another laboratory opportunity.”
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