Southwest Airlines Gave a Master Class in Crisis Comm This Week

Valerie Hoke
April 20, 2018

Let me start by saying this: There is no brand in the world to which I am more loyal than Southwest Airlines.

I feel taken care of on their flights. The experience is so much more relaxed and casual than other airlines, from the lack of stuffy, old-school flight attendant uniforms to the choose-your-own-adventure-style seating. And bags fly free, baby.

I don’t have that much anxiety when it comes to flying, but when I’m on an airline that isn’t Southwest, it gets exponentially worse.

That’s why this past week, I, like many others, was shaken up a bit by the tragic accident in which an engine on one of their planes malfunctioned, resulting in an emergency landing here in Philadelphia, a handful of injuries and one very saddening passenger death.

This was the airline’s first-ever inflight death—their only other two recorded fatalities involved someone struck by a plane outside and someone who stormed a cockpit—and for loyal customers like me who have always loved to commend Southwest for their zero-crash record, it was hard to stomach.

So I did what I usually do when a piece of news stops me in my tracks: I went to the source’s Facebook page.

At this point, the fatality was only a rumor spreading around on Twitter—the airline hadn’t confirmed it. Their last update was a message stating that one of their aircraft had been diverted to make an emergency landing in Philly and that they were looking into what happened.

Before a message confirming the fatality—and before any type of statement attributed to a leader within the company—these next two updates came through:

Let’s quickly establish one thing about profile pictures and cover photos. For a brand as large as Southwest, they matter a whole lot. Those images give the first impression to anyone who visits their Facebook page, whether they’re a loyal or first-time customer.

These updates tell me a few things:

Think about it. I have a hard time believing that when news spread of a fatal accident, some graphic designer employed by Southwest was immediately instructed to conceptualize and create a profile picture and cover photo that would address the tragedy with sensitivity and care. I have an even harder time imagining that any decision-makers within the company, who you know would have to approve something this public-facing, had the time to review graphics for social media in the face of a crisis.

Again: This had to be planned. Somewhere in the files on the Southwest communications team’s computers, these graphics were prepared and approved in advance in case they ever became necessary. It’s a bit of an eerie concept, yes, and it’s unfortunate that they had to see the light of day.

But that intuition to think ahead, folks, is masterful planning for crisis communications.

Of course, I can’t prove that this is exactly how any of this crisis communication was executed—I’m only making informed assumptions based on the speed at which these updates were deployed. Either way, though, I find their actions highly impressive.

A while after those profile updates, Southwest finally posted a video statement of their CEO confirming the fatality, offering additional details and expressing condolences to the loved ones of the deceased passenger.

Usually, an announcement from a major brand confirming a terrible situation for which they are responsible results in an uproar and long-lasting distrust from customers.

But take a look at these comments.

The outpouring of customers expressing their appreciation for how the incident was communicated to the public and their continued faith in Southwest as their airline of choice is remarkable.

Later, when the airline posted a message from the captain and first officer who safely landed the plane, the positive comments continued:

They go on and on and on.

No brand can manufacture that kind of sincerity and trust from their customers. After all, the average social media user often can’t be bothered to express positivity toward a brand, instead choosing to save their outreach for times when they’re angry.

I’ve done a lot of scrolling through the comments on these and related posts, and I literally have not yet seen one where someone is expressing anger or distrust. It’s incredible.

The lesson here, beyond the obvious notion that a plan for crisis communication is a crucial part of any major brand’s social media strategy, is that the most valuable tool in overcoming a crisis is a well-established history of customer loyalty. That’s easier said than done, of course, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s what any brand should strive for.

As for me, I won’t be changing any of my upcoming Southwest flight reservations.

You betcha, SH.