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The Big Story: ‘I hear Hell is looking for a PR director too’

This week Southwest Airlines posted a job opening on LinkedIn for a new PR Advisor in the wake of its holiday operational and communications disaster. One of the perks of the new job? “Fly for free, as a privilege, on any open seat on all Southwest flights.” As many have pointed out, this assumes actual flying occurs. Let the social media snark begin.

What it means for you

By David Jarrard

They say it takes years to build trust and a moment to break it. Let’s do the math:

  • Southwest was founded 20,388 days ago (March 15, 1967).
  • Most of holiday cancellations occurred over eight days (Dec. 22-29).
  • Eight divided by 20,388 is…0.0004, or 0.04 percent.

It took 0.04 percent of Southwest’s entire existence to leave customers and employees deeply skeptical of its operationally efficient and friendly, people-centered persona. Blink of the eye, indeed.

Of course, you’re no stranger to crisis management. You’re a healthcare communications leader. Your next crisis is one text away. It may have happened in your ER this morning.

But it’s rare that a big, cautionary case study spills into our living rooms this vividly and with such important reminders for us all.

So, if you are fortunate enough to have your luggage, let’s unpack this a bit.

Every significant crisis has at least three fundamental elements: What happened, how we talk about what happened and what action we are taking in the moment and in the future because of it.

How did SWA do? The airline suffered a significant operational breakdown, to be sure. Bad weather, antiquated systems and hamstrung leadership froze the country’s second-biggest passenger airline. Holiday travelers were strewn and stranded across the country. National media were gifted a story in a slow cycle. Social media lit up like, well, a Christmas tree.

Into the headwinds of this very public perfect storm, Southwest essentially said…nothing. At least at first, when it mattered. Let the lessons ensue.

Lesson One: Be first to tell your story or others will tell it for you. And you won’t like the story they tell.

In the vacuum created by SWA’s silence, the pilot union stepped in to describe the problem, compellingly placed blame and shaped the coverage. This framing, coupled with emotional stories from stranded passengers, appeared as a viral loop on social media. SWA began on defense and is still playing there.

Be the first and primary source of truth in a crisis, even if all is not known or all problems solved when you speak.

In tough moments, leadership and lawyers can hate transparency, the exposure it can create and the questions it can raise. We all appreciate that sensitivity. But when every person with a phone is both a reporter and a news outlet, keeping secrets is a risky game.

Smarter now to be first to frame, join and shape the conversation than to spend your precious, crisis-squeezed time defensively correcting misinformation spread by the voices who went ahead of you.

The truth will come out, and probably first on TikTok.

Lesson Two: Know what time it is.

When SWA initially spoke, it was with carefully parsed messages and incomplete information that seemed designed to deflect accountability.

It wasn’t a moment for SWA’s cheerful flight attendant tone. But neither was it one to sound like a statement before a senate panel (at least, not yet).

It was time to be on brand: humble, caring, and can-do. A time for expressions of empathy for passengers and for the suffering SWA staff laboring to get everyone home. A time also for the Rosie-the-Riveter spirit that once reflected SWA’s reputation.

Being off-brand signaled a defensiveness that hindered SWA’s ability to reclaim the narrative.

The feeling it created? Essentially, “That’s not who you are, so we won’t buy what you’re selling.”

Sidebar: For a happier tale, consider the message offered by the Tennessee Valley Authority as it addressed the rolling blackouts it imposed during the recent deep freeze that hit the Southeast.

Lesson Three: Share as much as you can as soon as you can.

The bad Southwest story grew worse as it became clear there was more to the problem than snow and ice. Antiquated technology, bad systems and a series of poor management decisions culminated in this mess. And the elements were unveiled piece by piece, story by story, extending and deepening the negative take on the airline.

The best messages are built on full contextual information. It’s not that every fact must be shared, it’s that every fact should be known by leadership and the communication team to create the most effective communications possible.

Lesson Four: Leadership actions are a message.

How leaders themselves behave is a powerful message. Always. In the heat of the travel meltdown, we heard some from corporate leaders but saw little of their behavior though the nightly news was stuffed with images of exhausted Southwest terminal staff managing exhausted passengers.

You know what this looks like when done well. Throughout the pandemic, we all saw health system leadership teams rounding, staffing units, sleeping in the command centers. The jackets were shed, the sleeves rolled up. Their behavior was a visible reflection of the urgency of their message.

Yes, maybe some of this is theater. But theater is (very) important, and the words used are a fraction of the message delivered.

Lesson Five: Take care of your people.

You know this lesson well; you’ve been taking care of your nurses and physicians and staff throughout the pandemic. Yes, it’s different here – no lives are at risk in the Southwest terminal – but the airline’s terminal staff took the brunt of the crisis and, no doubt, were strained by it.

These are the very same staff who will create the passenger experience that will nurture SWA’s reputational recovery.

There’s much more here, of course. If you want more, this column from Edward Segal at Forbes is good take, too.

And one last bonus lesson: Whenever possible, don’t check your luggage.

This piece was originally published over the weekend in our Sunday Quick Think newsletter. Fill out the form to get that in your inbox every week.

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