When conservative firebrand Ann Coulter launched a tirade on Twitter against Delta Air Lines over the weekend, the company pushed back publicly — calling her accusations "slanderous," "unnecessary" and "unacceptable."
Delta's direct and quick public response, as well as social media users' eagerness to slam a controversial pundit they disagree with, led to many people on Twitter applauding Delta and criticizing Coulter. That's a big change from other recent viral incidents in which fliers clashed with airline staff, most notably the passenger who was dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this year. In those cases, the internet sided largely with the aggrieved customer.
Public relations experts told Fortune that Delta's response made the best of potential PR nightmare in which, as the company said, it was under "public attack" by an influential commentator with more than 1.61 million Twitter followers.
"Delta was bold and quite strategic," said Eric Schiffer, CEO of Reputation Management Consultants, an online service that handles public relations crises, which has not worked with Delta. "They saw an opportunity to execute on their values, take an adult perspective and call out Ann Coulter and, in essence, others who have taken what may be a discretionary customer service move on the part of the airline and significantly overreact."
While some companies might respond to an attack like Coulter's with silence, hoping to avoid further controversy, Delta's choice of a quick and brief response was a better option, experts said.
"In this day and age when everyone has a megaphone and people are watching, you almost have to answer publicly," said Bob Geller, president of Fusion Public Relations, a New York-based marketing and communications firm.
Coulter had taken to Twitter on Saturday — and continued her social media smackdown through Monday — after she was moved from a seat with extra legroom to a different seat in the same aisle on a West Palm Beach, Fla.-bound Delta Air Lines flight.
Coulter dubbed Delta the "worst airline in America,"posting a picture of the passenger she said was placed in her pre-booked seat and calling the company's employees "Nurse Ratchets," likely a reference to the strict, heartless character Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
Delta responded by defending its customers and employees, and said the company would refund Coulter $30 for the preferred seat she had chosen in the exit row, which the airline had changed as a way of accommodating other seating requests.
"Each of our employees is charged with treating each other as well as our customers with dignity and respect," Delta said in a statement. "And we hold each other accountable when that does not happen. Delta expects mutual civility throughout the entire travel experience."
Delta did not respond to Fortune's request for further comment.
While the online response was largely in Delta's favor, some Twitter users defended Coulter and even shared similar experiences of their own frustrations with the airline.
"These types of battles are fought in public space like they never used to be," Geller said, noting that a single incident can unleash a wave of both related and unrelated complaints.
Delta largely won the online conversation by adopting a more relatable, less corporate tone than airlines often take when placed at the center of the controversy, Geller said. For example, after a doctor was dragged off a United Airlines flight in April to make room for United employees, the company issued an apology for having to "re-accommodate" some passengers. That phrasing was quickly ridiculed online. (At the time, Coulter had tweeted Dr. David Dao, the dragged passenger, should be "deported.")
While Delta appears to have come out ahead of Coulter in this case, Schiffer said the conservative provocateur still secured a win for her brand as well.
"[Coulter's] brand is controversy and her brand is attack-politics," Schiffer said. "She likes getting the attention and this is just another victory for her — even though it's a victory for Delta."