Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On a proper apology (We're waiting...)

Flying the friendly thighs.

Okay, so Southwest Airlines has made a couple of majors boners lately. One was a couple of months ago; an SWA flight attendant removed Kyla Ebbert from her flight from San Diego to Tucson, where she had a doctor's appointment, insisting that she go home, change clothes, and take a later flight. Eventually, she convinced him that by tugging her shirt up and her skirt down, she could assuage his injured sense of modesty, and he allowed her back onto the flight. Of course, at that point, she had been publicly shamed and humiliated, so the damage was pretty much done.

Here's the outfit:

Scoop-neck shirt (no cleavage). Cute little shrug. Miniskirt. With a pair of tights and a few more inches on the skirt, you've got an outfit I've worn to work before. Of course, the biggest difference between Kyla Ebbert and me is sitting in the front of her t-shirt. She's got big boobs, and yeah, she probably bought them, and yeah, she works at Hooters. None of that says anything about her character, but it's enough for people to start passing judgment on her, to act like it's perfectly acceptable to objectify her, and to publicly shame her for her dress, when the fact is that a calf-length shift dress and dirndl could look provocative on a woman of her proportions - and certainly would become so under the weight of that flight attendant's judgment.

SWA's other big mistake was their handling of the incident. Here's SWA President Colleen Barrett's letter of "apology" to Kyla:
From a Company who really loves PR, touche to you Kyla! Some have said we've gone from wearing our famous hot pants to having hot flashes at Southwest, but nothing could be further from the truth. As we both know, this story has great legs, but the true issue here is that you are a valued Customer, and you did not get an adequate apology. Kyla, we could have handled this better, and on behalf of Southwest Airlines, I am truly sorry. We hope you continue to fly Southwest Airlines. Our Company is based on freedom even if our actions may have not appeared that way. It was never our intention to treat you unfairly and again, we apologize.

Haha! Oh, what a hoot. D'you remmeber that time we yanked you off a flight in front of the whole plane and told you you looked like a slut? Hee! Wow, what a boneheaded move, right? Heh-heh. Golly, you were just crying all the way to Tucson. What a gas. Did we ever blow that one. Get it? Blow? Because you were dressed like a slut? Oh, I kill me.

Just a note for future reference, SWA: An ATC delay, you can handle with jocularity. A computer scheduling glitch, you can handle with humor. You can probably even laugh off a drunken pilot as long as he doesn't get past the jetway. But when you've slut-shamed a passenger such that she's crying all the way from San Diego to Tucson, your apology had better start and end by validating her feelings, and offer her a diamond-encrusted pony somewhere in the middle.

I'm hoping the offending flight attendant got a talking-to. I'm almost hoping the PR team got fired, because any half-lucid PR professional with a degree from an accredited institution knows better than to send out a media release like that. I've left a message with their head of PR edxpressing pretty much that sentiment, phrased more diplomatically, of course. And should I receive my requested callback, this is the suggestion that I will make:
Dear Southwest customers,

We at SWA consider our customers and our employees to be part of our family. Families are made up of people, and unfortunately, people sometimes make mistakes. We've made several big ones lately in the way we've behaved toward Kyla Ebbert.

Our first mistake was removing her from the Tucson flight in the first place. Absent an actual customer complaint, our flight attendant overstepped his authority in commenting on her attire. Empowering our employees as we have to ensure the comfort of our customers does leave room for human error, and our employees now understand why this particular error was so hurtful to Ms. Ebbert. Judgments on issues of style and modesty are not the role of the SWA employee, and we apologize for this violation of our standards of customer care.

Our second, and possibly worse, mistake was our handling of the incident in its aftermath, particularly in the way we adressed Ms. Ebbert herself. Weather delays and technical glitches can gracefully be handled with lighthearted humor; Ms. Ebbert, however, is a human being who was understandably insulted and whose feelings were understandably hurt by what happened on that flight. In hindsight, my initial apology, which was intended to seem lighthearted, may have come across as glib and dismissive, and for this, too, we are sorry. Ms. Ebbert's feelings are important to us, and we picked a poor way of expressing that.

We would like to make this up to Ms. Ebbert and to anyone else aggriveved by the handling of this incident. To Ms. Ebbert, we offer free airfare, for life, anywhere SWA flies within the United States. To everyone else, we offer a fare of $10 (plus taxes and fees) to anywhere within the continental U.S. now through the end of the year, simply by referencing this e-mail. Please give us the chance to show you how friendly and welcoming SWA's employees really are.

We screwed up, and we're very sorry. We ask you, as members of the SWA family, to accept our apology and to give us another chance to provide the quality service and accommodating atmosphere that have been Southwest's hallmarks for over 35 years.

Colleen Barrett
President, Southwest Airlines

We've been over this before, but for some reason, people continue to have serious trouble with the art of the sincere apology. It's actually quite simple:

Step 1: Admit that you screwed up. "I'm sorry you were offended" doesn't cut it. An apology in the passive coice is an insult and is worse than no apology.

Step 2: Validate the other person's feelings. It doesn't matter if you, personally, wouldn't have been offended by what happened. If the other person wasn't offended, you wouldn't be groveling right now.

Step 3: Actually apologize. There's nothing wrong with saying, "I didn't mean to hurt/offend you" - if, in fact, you really didn't mean to do it, that's a fact you'll definitely want to include - but it's worthless unless it's followed up with, "but I did, and I'm really sorry."

Step 4: Make amends, as best you can, and sincerely try never to make that mistake in the future.

Y'all, I had an eight-week internship in this stuff in college, and I'm still doing better than the professional shills and spinners at SWA. I need to start charging for this stuff. You hear that, America? Today, you're getting this wisdom for free; next time, it's gonna cost twice as much.

No comments: