American's Firing of Mr X Becoming a Social Media Black Eye

Last Updated Nov 12, 2009 9:42 AM EST

Thanks to the Mr. X incident, American Airlines is about to get a dose of what United recently experienced when it broke guitars - a wave of negative social media coverage. Not sure who Mr. X is? Read on, and see why I think they're making a mistake in the way they're handling this.

It all started when Dustin Curtis posted a missive on how American's website sucks and could be improved. That was followed up by an equally interesting response from a user experience architect at American explaining how things worked at the organization. I even wrote about it here in June.

Now, word comes out that this user experience architect, known to us as Mr. X, was fired by American and the blogosphere is buzzing. In fact, I just went to Google and typed in Mr X American Airlines. It came back with 161,000 results. That's 3,000 more than when I checked last night.

This is taking on a life of its own, so I figured I would see what American had to say. I spoke with Billy Sanez at American and he said this:

The person you're referring to used to be an American Airlines contractor, not an employee. The issue is not about posting on a blog but about revealing company secrets, and breaking a non-disclosure agreement.
Ok, so what were these company secrets exactly? He wouldn't tell me, because, well, they were company secrets. I'm guessing, however, that it's this stuff.

The good news is that we have a lot of UX improvements coming down the line, most of which we'll incorporate over the next 12 â€" 18 months as new projects go live. Some of our slated efforts include improved navigation; 16 column grid-based layouts; a lighter, more airy visual design; improved user interactions; and an increased transparency to fares and sales policies across the board. We'll work it all in organically, as the site evolves to include new features. But it won't be done via an explicit, massive redesign. Can't be.
Still not exactly anything super top secret. But let's say that this really is the right decision to let this guy go. Is American handling it well? I think not. The buzz throughout the world of social media has been overwhelmingly negative, so I asked Billy how they were dealing with the reaction.

We're just making sure people understand and get the whole story from us. We're making sure we answer every question people have about it. We're doing it on a case-by-case basis.
Wait, on a case-by-case basis? Does that mean they aren't doing outreach, I asked?

We're doing some outreach but it's nothing majorly proactive that we're currently doing. We're doing what we believe is the right thing for the situation.
Uh oh, this isn't good. They may think this is the right way to handle it and that they can react quickly enough to stop any issues, but I wouldn't bet on it. This thing is making the rounds and American looks bad, regardless of whether they are bad or not. They need to get out in front of this thing.

American should really be reaching out to influencers here to explain why they acted as they did. Instead, the news keeps spreading about how horrible they are, whether it's true or not.

I've already received emails on this from several people, and it's only going to pick up. I'll be watching to see if American can contain this, but I will be surprised if they can with this strategy.