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In December, megabrand Heinz discovered an impersonator on Twitter: one @hj_heinz. The mystery hijacker had Heinz ketchup bottles for a Twitter background and had been sharing ketchup-related recipes and company tidbits with Heinz lovers in the Twittersphere.

The account had been running for two weeks when Heinz discovered it. Heinz immediately contacted Twitter and had the account stripped (subscription required) of any suggestion the user was associated with the brand.

The next time Michael Werch, the account owner, logged in, he found that his background and bio had been removed and his username had been changed to @NOThj_heinz. No explanation was provided except for a generic message from Twitter saying he'd violated its trademark policy.

Werch, who is an avid Heinz lover, was surprised and upset. He contacted Twitter and offered to work things out with a Heinz representative. He got no response, which was a big mistake.

In February, gave him the opportunity to recount his side of the story—which was then picked up by All Things Digital, BusinessWeek, and countless blogs. Moreover, he revealed to his Twitter followers that he wasn't a Heinz representative, and they encouraged him to continue what he was doing.

The follower count for NOThj_heinz has more than doubled since the incident; people seem to like what he has to share, even if he's not a bona fide Heinz employee.

Here's another story...

Recently, director Kevin Smith, of the Jay and Silent Bob series of films—was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for allegedly threatening the safety and comfort of other passengers because of his generous waistline.

Smith made a huge stink on his blog, on his podcast, and on Twitter, arguing that he can safely sit aboard a plane without compromising the comfort or safety of others.

According to Smith, Southwest representative Linda Rutherford called him, conceded that he hadn't been knocked off the flight because of his weight, and seemed willing to do what she could to set the record straight.

Smith was grateful. But in a blog post following their conversation, she never explicitly admits what Smith says she told him: that it wasn't a weight issue. Moreover, after writing the post, Rutherford defends her position, arguing that Southwest interviewed Smith's seatmates.

"Now I'm gonna carry this Too Fat To Fly **** around like herpes for the rest of my life, and it was never even true," Smith lamented on his blog.

Venting into his own literary ether isn't all he's done. He's posted some two dozen YouTube videos and a series of highly detailed podcasts about the Southwest situation.

The stories have two things in common: (1) Repeat customers—the most expensive people for a company to lose—were burned by brands they know and trust, and (2) today, unlike 10 years ago, those customers have a platform for sharing their pain with others.

How the Brands Responded

In the case of Heinz and Michael Werch, nobody's arguing that Heinz should have let Werch—or any other social-media progeny—run buck-wild with its brand. It made a choice that was its right to make: It didn't want a non-brand-related representative speaking for the company. The problem is, Heinz moved too slowly.

According to an official statement from Jessica Jackson, Heinz North America's Group Leader, Public Relations, which was issued when AdAge requested a response, "We actively monitor the social-media space, which is how we discovered the Twitter account 'hj_heinz.' ... Heinz believes in transparency in social media and considered the 'hj_heinz' Twitter account to be very misleading for consumers, especially those people who were following this account. In accordance with Twitter's Terms of Use, Heinz reported the impersonation to Twitter and the account was closed."

Problems with Heinz's response:

If Heinz actively monitors the social-media space, it should've caught Werch much sooner. "As of Dec. 14, I had tweeted 175 times and gained 367 followers from the @HJ_Heinz feed," Werch writes in AdAge. That might not sound like a lot, but Werch knows better: "For two weeks I spoke unrestricted as the company. This in its own right is a potential PR nightmare."

Jackson says Werch's failure to disclose that he wasn't a Heinz employee was misleading for consumers. But Werch professes himself "genuinely enthusiastic" about Heinz, which is why he chose to impersonate it. He conducted serious research to make himself sound like a credible source for the brand.

It doesn't appear, however, that Heinz took any time to research him or get the feel of the "hj_heinz" personality; in the end, Heinz burned an enthusiast and, in so doing, conveyed the message to his followers that that's how the company treats such people—frostily and without discrimination.

The Jackson statement is clinical and reeks of a lawyer's vetting. It sits in Werch's AdAge column, below the account of a relatable and intelligent brand evangelist who was ignored when he tried to make right.

Southwest wronged Smith by unnecessarily embarrassing him in a public situation and being vague about why he was removed from the flight in the first place.

The PR nightmare was well on its way to resolution when company representative Linda Rutherford called him to make right; the problem is that she apparently divulged to Smith by phone that he was not ejected from the plane for being too fat to fly yet in her blog post following their conversation continues to allude that that was indeed the reason.

After reading the post, a betrayed Smith opines:

"When we spoke, you told me they were wrong, and THAT'S why I was happy and ready to drop all this. I don't want your money, I just want you to put in print what you told me: that I was grabbed because I was the last guy on, not because I didn't fit with the arm rests down, or because I couldn't buckle the seat belt. Because I did. And we both know this."

After the publication of her apology, Rutherford justifies her change in position by asserting, "The people around you said they had to lean over to make room for you."

In response to that, which he suspects to be a lie, Smith actually hunts down one of his Southwest seatmates and interviews her on Episode 107 of Smodcast, his personal podcast.

The sense of injustice surrounding his situation compelled Smith to use all resources available to him to pummel Southwest on all fronts and defend his side of the story—effectively changing perception of Southwest, I'd wager, among those following the drama—including those who have ever felt themselves sitting at the cusp of an airline's weight restrictions. (And if statistics are any indication, that number is only growing.)

By calling Smith and writing a commiserating blog post about his situation, Southwest did what can be construed as the social-media bare minimum to defend itself against media flack.

But it made a crucial and decidedly old-school mistake: It thought it could lie to Smith to sate him and assumed he wouldn't have access to the resources Southwest did in terms of witnesses ( his seatmates) and broadcasting strength (and as a cult-film icon and social-media adept, turns out he has a lot).

At the heart of that is the assumption that a big company is seen as an authority and therefore people won't argue if the company tells them they're mistaken.

If you've ever been a customer, you know this has probably never been true. If people ever seemed subject to the whims and wiles of Big Business, it's because up until 20 years ago they were at a significant disadvantage in getting their sides of a story heard.

Today, all you need to do is construct a catchy means of spreading your message—"United Breaks Guitars" comes to mind—and dip a little bit into search-engine optimization. From this vantage point, it isn't hard to see how David managed to beat Goliath.

Handling Hijacks With Grace

Here are some ways the situations could have been handled better. .

By skimming the tweets that appeared on the @hj_heinz account, Heinz ought to have deduced that it was dealing with a friend, not a foe.

It had no official Twitter presence at that time, and it still doesn't as of this writing, so we can assume the company may not be interested in dedicating its own resources to the true and tiresome work of online engagement.

Werch has been gracious in his reflections of the situation. He still tweets on NOThj_heinz, and he still talks about food. Heinz should contact him immediately, apologize for the PR-paranoid kneejerk reaction, and grant him an honorary title: brand evangelist.

Werch can be given insider information to spread to others, and he can help Heinz manage a large community that the brand has, so far, demonstrated no clear interest in participating in itself.

Public recognition from a brand you love is often worth more to a person than, say, a paycheck. But if Werch were incorporated into the Heinz family, even on an "honorary" basis, he may have been willing to accept input and guidance from the brand in exchange for inside tidbits and discounts he could disseminate exclusively through his Twitter stream. That could have led to the blossoming of a complete program for future unpaid Heinz enthusiasts.

As we mentioned previously, if Heinz is married to its zero-tolerance policy on unofficial brand representatives, that's fine, too. But nip them in the bud, preferably within days of their creation; do not wait two weeks!

In the case of Southwest, Smith has repeatedly revealed the key to turning off his negative-PR hose and reinstilling goodwill: For Southwest to admit publicly that he wasn't kicked off the plane because he was too fat.

And if Southwest was going to stick to the too-fat alibi, Rutherford—the voice of the company—shouldn't have conceded in private that that wasn't the issue when he was pushed off board.

Don't lie to defend your position. Users have always been suspicious about taking the word of big companies at face value, but today they have the means to ferret out the truth—and broadcast it—if they want to.

Rutherford asserted Smith's seatmates were interviewed. So he found one and got her story: Not only did the seatmate in question not have a problem with him, but apparently she was asked to sit in the seat beside him and was told he had a problem with her.

That's a lot of lying. You don't want to be a company in that kind of compromising situation.

Southwest should contact Smith again, set the record straight with him, and let him interview the company on YouTube or on his podcast.

That pretty much guarantees he'll pummel Southwest in public, but Southwest prides itself on two things: being more human than other airlines, and being social-media savvy. And the latter isn't just about writing an apology blog.

The quality of "authenticity" is a huge component to demonstrating social-media savvy, and for good reason. View it as shorthand for be more human.

One crucial aspect to being human is knowing when you're wrong and admitting you're sincerely sorry, no strings attached. (Consider the daisytree approach.)

Admitting publicly that you acted like a jerk doesn't hurt your image as a company; rather, it's evidence that you're willing to do the right thing when you know you've been wrong. That means a whole lot more than a well-edited press release.

As Smith wrote in response to Rutherford:

"Get me a document to sign, and I'll swear on my child's life and penalty of all I own that I'll never sue your Airlines. But just PUT THE ... TRUTH OUT THERE THAT I'M NOT TOO FAT TO FLY, AND THAT THIS WAS ALL AN UNFORTUNATE ERROR ON SOUTHWESTERN'S PART."

That's not a huge demand, particularly if it happens to be true. And it gives one person back his dignity, which pays dividends in brand loyalty and positive feedback in the social-media space.

And, really, what's the downside to that?

Note: Both Heinz and Southwest were contacted to provide input into the writing of this article. Neither responded.

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image of Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a social media strategist, copywriter, and journalist based in Paris. A Bay Area native and lover of vending machine candies, she co-founded and is a frequent guest on marketing podcast The Beancast. You can follow her on Twitter at @luckthelady.