There are some fights you just don’t get into. Never climb into a ring with Mike Tyson. Don’t challenge IBM’s Watson supercomputer to a friendly game of speed chess. And avoid a pissing contest with an airline crew over using your cell phone.

The first gets you beaten up. The second humiliates you. But the third can become a social media public relations debacle—especially if you are a celebrity by the name of Alec Baldwin who already has a challenged public persona. Too bad he didn’t ask the two questions that could have kept him out of trouble.

A bad boy on and off the screen

Entertainment celebrities have careers that live and die by how the public reacts to them. (Does the name Charlie Sheen sound familiar?) That doesn’t mean everyone has to love you. But they have to tolerate your presence. It only gets infinitely trickier now that social media are so well established. Any slip-up has a good chance of being noticed by someone who sends it out over Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

Baldwin has been anything but a lovable character. A few years ago, there was the incident of when he called his daughter, Ireland, who lives with her mother Kim Basinger, a “rude thoughtless little pig” because she didn’t pick up the phone when he called as scheduled.

Any parent has to at least understand the potential of losing it in the face of pre-teen narcissism. But most moms and dads aren’t stars of a popular sitcom. In a world of social media, such an event is manna from heaven for a site like TMZ.com.

They said, he said

Earlier this week, Baldwin, generous as ever, sent another course over from the tarmac. Here’s a synopsis from American Airlines, which was the airline he was traveling on:

Since an extremely vocal customer has publicly identified himself as being removed from an American Airlines flight on Tuesday, Dec. 6, we have elected to provide the actual facts of the matter as well as the FAA regulations which American, and all airlines, must enforce. Cell phones and electronic devices are allowed to be used while the aircraft is at the gate and the door is open for boarding. When the door is closed for departure and the seat belt light is turned on, all cell phones and electronic devices must be turned off for taxi-out and take-off. This passenger declined to turn off his cell phone when asked to do so at the appropriate time. The passenger ultimately stood up (with the seat belt light still on for departure) and took his phone into the plane’s lavatory. He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked. They immediately contacted the cabin crew to check on the situation. The passenger was extremely rude to the crew, calling them inappropriate names and using offensive language. Given the facts above, the passenger was removed from the flight and denied boarding.

There’s the elegant difference between the American Airlines PR staff, which uses social media, and Baldwin, who makes himself a victim of it. The actor suspended his Twitter account, at least for the time being. But have no fear, because Baldwin apparently forgot that his Facebook page carried all his tweets, including these:

  • “Flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing WORDS W FRIENDS while we sat at the gate, not moving.”
  • “But, oddly, 30 Rock plays inflight on American.”
  • “Now on the 3 o’clock American flight. The flight attendants already look…..smarter.”
  • “Last flight w American. Where retired Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950′s find jobs as flight attendants.”
  • “United shud hav app onboard where u can play WWF w other passengers. American shud have app where u read the new testament w flt attendants”

He appended many of these with the hashtag #theresalwaysunited.

Alienate friends and aggravate people

Baldwin clearly missed the most critical lesson in “How to Use Social Media for Fun and Profit.” Read what you’re about to send and pretend it came from someone else. If your inclination is to ask, “Who is this dope?” then don’t click Send.

Of course, it’s all much easier if you avoid setting yourself up for public hostility in the first place. By the way, if you think this is just about celebrities, think again. Or maybe you missed the news about the Research in Motion employees whose behavior forced a plane to turn around in mid-air and return to its departure point. That raises another good question to ask. If someone tweeted what I’m about to do, would I kick myself in the morning?

UPDATE: Baldwin has since apologized to his fellow passengers for the kerfuffle but claims he was singled out while others continued to use their phones.