Was Randi Zuckerberg right to call out Alaska Airlines on Twitter?

Photo: Monika Flueckiger

Randi Zuckerberg says she was harassed by another passenger on Alaska Airlines, and the flight crew enabled him. She tweeted about it to get the airline’s attention. Is it fair to use your social media following to get satisfaction from a company behaving poorly?

Was Randi Zuckerberg’s letter fair?

Randi Zuckerberg is an author, Facebook’s former director of market development, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s sister. Here’s her tweet about Alaska Airlines:

Here’s the text of the letter, which I’ll analyze:

Dear Alaska Airlines –
cc: Jeff Butler, VP Airport Operations & Custorner Service
cc: Andy Schneider, VP of In-Flight Services
cc: Brad Tilden, CEO

I was put in an extremely uncomfortable situation on a flight today when the passenger next to me on my flight from Los Angeles to Mazatlan, in first class began making explicit, lewd, and highly offensive sexual comments to me, immediately upon boarding the aircraft. He started talking to me about touching himself, kept asking me if I fantasized about the female business colleague I was traveling with, rated and commented on the women’s bodies boarding the aircraft as they walked by us, and many more equally horrifying and offensive comments.

When I brought it to the flight attendants’ attention, their response was that this guy was a frequent Alaska Airlines traveler on this exact route, and they have had to talk to him about his behavior in the past, but oh well, don’t take it personally, this guy just doesn’t have a filter. They came by my seat a few times and sweetly asked the passenger, “Are you behaving today?” with a smile and giggle. After I told them that I was extremely uncomfortable, they suggested to me that they could re-seat me in a middle seat at the very back of the plane. Which I almost did until I realized….why should I have to move? I am the one that is being harassed! By a traveler who has a KNOWN history by the. very flight attendants of being inappropriate and offensive in the past. All of this happened before the plane took off…why is it the woman that needs to switch seats in this situation? Shouldn’t he have been thrown off the plane?!

For the record, I was in seat 4A and he was in seat 4C. So you should know exactly who that passenger was.

I remained in my seat and for the remainder of the flight, watched as this passenger drank multiple alcoholic beverages (at one point he had three alcoholic beverages on his tray table) and continued to make inappropriate and offensive comments to me. Ironically one of those comments was about all the recent sexual harassment ca.s in the media and how “these Millennial women just aren’t willing to give some booty to get a job anymore.”

I am furious at that passenger for making me extremely uncomfortable for a 3 hour flight. I am pretty furious at myself for not causing more of a scene in the moment. I am furious that he thought it was appropriate to say those things to me, a complete stranger.

But I am even more furious with Alaska Airlines for knowingly and willingly providing this man with a platform to harass women. For knowing about this behavior and being more concerned with taking his money than for the safety and security of the other passengers around him.

I intend to post about my experiences on social media and I am considering further action on this matter.

Randi Zuckerberg

The first sentence here is passive voice — Zuckerberg doesn’t say who put her in the uncomfortable situation. I don’t think she’s figured out who to blame yet at that point in the letter. The rest of the letter is a clear first person account. There are a few weasel words — like “highly” offensive and “pretty” furious — but overall, this is a straightforward description of harassment.

Alaska Airlines responds within two hours

Normally, a company is not responsible for the behavior of one customer towards another. But several things make this case different. First, it’s on an airplane, where maintaining order and to some degree, politeness, is part of the airline’s responsibility to the passengers. Secondly, this passenger clearly had a history of drinking and then treating other customers poorly. From a customer experience perspective, the right thing to do for the airline was to warn the passenger and then take action to prevent him from flying and harassing other passengers.

Here’s the tweet that Alaska Airlines responded with:

This appears to be a step in the right direction. Alaska has taken action quickly but will find out more before taking other actions, such as changing instructions to flight crew. And according to Zuckerberg, the airline did satisfy her concerns with a call:

Is it fair for an “influencer” to apply pressure on social media to get satisfaction?

Did Randi Zuckerberg abuse her privilege? More broadly, if you have a social media following, is it fair to use it to get what you deserve?

Broadly, I think the answer is yes, it’s fair for influencers to use social media to call out how corporations fail them. The playing field is tilted against the individual consumer in most corporate situations. When that consumer has the power of social media at her disposal, she has a right to use it. In this case, Randi Zuckerberg has 184,000 followers and is a minor corporate celebrity, which gives her a good-sized club to bash a misbehaving airline with. There are already more than 100  articles about this incident. And these challenges often create actual change. See this post that Jeremiah Owyang did about brands that got humiliated after misbehaving on social media.

That said, I think that influencers with a big following must be careful not to abuse their power. Here are some questions to ask to help decide when to “out” a company for bad service:

  • Do you do this all the time? If you’re complaining once a week or once a month, it will get tedious for your followers, and you’re probably overreacting.
  • Are you expecting special treatment? Complaints of this kind won’t get much sympathy if they’re, basically, “Do you know who I am? Don’t I, personally, deserve better service because I’m famous?” In Zuckerberg’s case, although she was in first class, what she asked for was treatment appropriate for any passenger. Anyone could have made the same complaint.
  • Did you try to resolve the issue through normal methods? Until you’ve called customer service or asked a clerk to fix a problem, you’ve got no right to tweet. Let the service folks do their job. In this case, the flight attendants didn’t do what they should have to protect other passengers over multiple flights.
  • Is it really a minor problem? Failing to provide a requested twist of lemon is not tweetworthy. Repeated sexual harassment is.
  • Are you the only who one would benefit? This is perhaps the biggest question. If it’s just about you, maybe it’s not worth making a fuss. In Zuckerberg’s case, the problem passenger was clearly annoying other passengers on this flight, and was likely to continue doing so on other flights. Fixing this problem would help many more people than the person complaining.

So it’s not black and white, but these questions can help you decide. If you can answer most of them negatively, then it’s probably worth it to make a public fuss about the terrible service.

One more question is relevant: “Is it funny?” Absurdly and amusingly poor service has a way of going viral. That may not be fair, but it’s inevitable.

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  1. I agree it’s fair to use social media to right a wrong, when all the customary channels fail you. I tackled Priceline through my blog and LinkedIn articles, and the mammoth company caved in a week’s time. You only need a calm voice and the power of being right behind you to win. “The playing field is titled against the individual consumer in most corporate situations,” you say. “When that consumer has the power of social media at her disposal, she has a right to use it.” Indeed, she does!

  2. Josh,
    As always, I enjoy reading your analysis of real world communications pieces.

    In the spirit of it taking a village though, did you mean “tilted”?

    “The playing field is titled against the individual consumer …”

  3. Aiding and abetting that old “boys will be boys” is disgusting. I even think AA employees should be called out for not providing safe space for this woman to travel. No idea how old the guy is but he Really needs to be taught a lesson. I don’t associate with misogynists and hope men start calling out this caveman bullshit.