Posted on May 8, 2012 ยท Posted in Social Media

Add Spirit Airlines to the list of brands that made a poor decision, ignored outrage from social media and then had to relent as a result of public pressure. It’s a lesson that many big brands from GoDaddy to Kenneth Cole were forced to learn despite the fact that controversy could have easily been avoided in the first place.

The latest example involves discount carrier Spirit Airlines which refused to refund a plane ticket purchased by Jerry Meekins, a Vietnam veteran dying of cancer. The man purchased a non-refundable ticket and the company publicly refused to issue a refund because it would be unfair to other customers. This is perfectly fine from a business perspective but showing zero compassion for a dying veteran is pretty much the worst possible thing you can do from a social media perspective.

Over the next few days, outrage grew and the company continued to stand their ground on the issue. However as public pressure, stock price declines and a planned boycott began to materialize, the company was forced to make a 180 with CEO Ben Baldanza claiming he would personally refund the $197 ticke fee in addition to a $5,000 donation to the Wounded Warrior Project. All of this because they failed to show compassion to a dying customer.

Brands need to understand that social media allows stories like this to not only receive coverage but spread rapidly through the online community. Before social media if a brand did something stupid or downright heartless a person would have to contact a reporter and hope that a hard hitting story would be able to rectify the situation. Now every rude employee, wrong order and poor decision can be documented and distributed to thousands, if not millions of people in a matter of hours.

Does that mean that big brands are essentially walking on egg shells every time they have an unhappy customer? Not necessarily. Only the most egregious problems or issues are going to gain traction in social media. Thus it is important that companies identify situations that could potentially flare up online.

If Spirit Airlines had used common sense they would have lost $197 … instead they’ve lost hundreds of times that amount in lost business.