This year has been loaded with mishaps relating to social media that I've been more than happy to sound off about: from Gilbert Gottlieb's Twitter disaster ("Ducking Social Media Disaster") to the Anthony Weiner debacle ("Burnt Weiner and the Rethinking of Social Media"), culminating in the eyes-wide-shut nightmare of Penn State and Jerry Sandusky.
But finally, as we hit the waning days of 2011, we find an example of a corporation that does something right in the social media arena: to wit, the case of American Airlines versus Alec Baldwin.
If you're not glued to the Twittersphere, you might have missed the story: The puffy actor was ejected from an American Airlines flight (not midair, mind you) for failing to turn off his mobile device when instructed to do so by flight attendants.
The reaction in the Twitter universe was hot and immediate, and mostly in favor of Baldwin, after the actor tweeted a snotty message on the situation: "Flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing WORDS W FRIENDS while we sat at the gate, not moving. #nowonderamericaairisbankrupt.” Later, he tweeted that American was "where retired Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950′s find jobs as flight attendants.”
American could have very well let the matter lie, hoping it would die a natural death in the constantly churning "news" cycle of cyberspace. Instead, after Baldwin fired the first shot, the airline took to its Facebook page to tell its side of the story.
Without naming names, American wrote that an "extremely vocal customer" not only declined to turn off his phone, but was "extremely rude to the crew, calling them inappropriate names and using offensive language...Given the facts above, the passenger was removed from the flight and denied boarding."
On Twitter, American said its flight attendants followed federal safety regulations regarding electronic devices, and left it at that.
Flying today is a far cry from the halcyon "Mad Men" days of yore; the experience is more like moving livestock than transporting jet-setters, which is probably why it brings out the worst in many travelers. Still, I doubt that Baldwin was crammed between a screaming baby and a fat man in the economy section, so his stress level couldn't have been that high. Perhaps he had hit a snag in the vitally important activity of playing one of those cloying, ubiquitous Zynga games--you know, the ones your friends annoy the hell out of you with updates on Facebook ("Fred just lost 100,000 head of cattle to hoof-and-mouth disease on Farmville!")--and that alone could have caused him to react badly.
Still, rules are rules, and if you and I have to turn off our cell phones on a plane, then so should Baldwin. Don't like it? Complain to the FCC, which has banned the use of mobile phones and similar devices on airplanes.
According to Wikipedia (the modern font of all knowledge!), "There is evidence showing various degrees of correlation between use of mobile phones in flight and various instrument problems. One study concluded that mobile phones used in the cabin could exceed the rated allowable interference levels for some avionics installed in aircraft. On the other hand, links between device use and actual system failures have not been proven, nor have the reported incidents been reproduced in ground tests."
Like most of these kinds of stories, there is probably more here than meets the eye. I find it entirely believable that Baldwin was abusive to the flight attendants who, 1950s gym teachers or not, are just trying to make a living and don't need his guff.
American's decision to promptly get the story out into the social media realm instead of playing ostrich and hoping it would just go away was exactly what businesses need to do in potentially explosive situations. Your business clients can learn a lot from the way this was handled.