Why Southwest Airlines Crisis PR Feels As Lost As All That Luggage

If you’ve consumed news at all in recent days, you don’t need a PR type to explain to you what a mess Southwest Airlines has experienced.

But, as someone who went to “Crisis PR Boot Camp” by representing an airline nearly 25 years ago, here’s some insight as to why the company’s PR approach has felt as lost as the piles of luggage visible at airports across the country.

First, the company failed to heed to adage “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you and they won’t say what you wish they would.” If you’ve been following the story, you’ve heard from angry customers, analysts (using the term “meltdown” and worse), the critical White House and the scathing U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Those voices have carried the news. As for the company, well, that leads us to another piece of wisdom…

I stole this one from a client, who likely stole it from another and it applies here, as it does so often. In tough times, “Push people not paper.”

For days, all Southwest had to offer its audiences was a series of written statements. As statements go, they were pretty strong as far as messaging, despite some stilted language. But this has been a story about human impact and until just about an hour before this writing, days upon days into the story, they hadn’t even shared a video. Now, one is online. If that had been done day after day during the crisis, the news coverage would have been different and likely more balanced.

Don’t they have media trained executives beyond their CEO? For more than 24 hours, news outlets around the country had to use isolated quotes the CEO gave to the Wall Street Journal. What a mistake. How about other executives to spread around the load?

Don’t they have media trained local managers who could have delivered a consistent message via local news in heavily affected communities? That would have been an effective way to connect with audiences emotionally affected by the airline’s inability to provide service.

It’s impossible to know what went on inside the company in recent days without being on the Zooms. But the symptoms show that this was an airline operations nightmare that sucked up all of management’s attention leaving scraps for communications. Now, the company, long the most popular and successful in its industry. faces consumer and government scrutiny like never before. Somehow, some day, the company needed to operate and communicate, in other words walk and chew gum, simultaneously.

A whole lot has changed since the airline operations and service debacles of the ’90s. We just didn’t have as many tools and customers didn’t carry communications platforms with them at all times. But the fundamentals that applied then still hold. That’s what Southwest and its competitors should be thinking about when making New Year’s resolutions.