50 shades of social

Do teens with Down Syndrome belong in first class?

Outrageous question, right? Or is it?

There's a controversy swirling around American Airlines regarding the treatment of Bede Vanderhorst, a 16-year old with Down Syndrome, who, along with his parents, was denied boarding on a domestic flight despite a first-class ticket home. (Or, perhaps because of it.)  AA has made its own official statement saying the teen was deemed a flight risk by the pilot and "appeared very agitated" just prior to boarding time.

When one of us sounded off on this on Twitter this week, AA was quick (in just 10 mins) with a public @reply including a link to their Facebook update on the story.

Like: Good use of the social web as a comms tool with a clear demonstrated commitment to engagement through timely individual responses.  Generally speaking, their social properties are frequently updated with posts that are both valuable and interesting (read: not always all about them.)

Dislike: All the best and most savvy uses of social technology don't cover or make up for bad human behaviour or flawed decision making, even with the finest words money can buy. It's the quintessential brand conundrum and the most misunderstood tenet of branding -- brands are visual, verbal AND EXPERIENTIAL. That means you can have the finest brandmark, the most eloquent and persuasive messaging and a plan to communicate your super friendly, people-centred culture / high integrity / service commitment, but if the gal at the front desk is telling everyone to eff off, you've got a brand problem.  This would be similar to, say, an airline telling an exceptional young man that he can't sit with their cool, rich friends 'cause he's different...if that is indeed what happened.

Bottom line: The only people who will ever know if Bede presented a true flight risk are the pilot and the parents. Obviously this is an incredibly emotionally-charged issue, coloured by presumptions of prejudice and class, so reaction, in particular on the social web, is going to be swift and harsh.

If social media and interactive technologies have taught us anything, it's that in the environment of democratized real-time opinion, everything is gray. Like 50 shades, and not the good pop erotica kind.

Is your brand ready to play?