What We Can Learn From Southwest Airlines’ Recent PR CrisisJan. 3, 2023
By Jennifer R. Farmer
Many of us watched with a mix of horror, outrage and sadness as Southwest Airlines completely melted down of over the holiday season. The airline reportedly canceled over 13,000 flights beginning on Dec. 22. What started as a shock quickly erupted into a traveling nightmare for Southwest customers and a massive public relations crisis for the company.
For those of us in public relations, particularly crisis management, this experience provides a learning opportunity. For years, insiders claimed that Southwest relied on outdated crew-scheduling software and/or aging technology. In other words, there were signs that the company’s systems needed updating. The question becomes: “What did the company do with that information?”
While a crisis can strike out of the blue, often there are red flags indicating something is amiss. Sometimes leaders fail to act because they do not take threats seriously. Other times, they underestimate the threat or believe there is time to address it. I’m not sure what happened with Southwest Airlines. And to be honest, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you are doing in your business or life to prevent a crisis before it begins.
To be clear, a crisis is any event that threatens to disrupt your ability to fulfill your mission. Rather than focusing on the mission, you are focusing on the problem. It is anything that compromises the trust and loyalty you’ve established with customers and clients. And yes, this includes employees.
It is easy to focus on Southwest Airlines because the company has recently been in the media. But examples are only useful if they inspire us to operate differently. In this moment, we should be assessing our own organizations and looking for warning signs that a challenge is brewing.
Often before a situation spills out into public view, there are internal warnings that things are amiss. There are people who highlight a challenge and share feedback that, if implemented promptly, could help avert a massive problem down the line. News reports indicate that pilots, industry insiders and others had warned Southwest Airlines of crumbling infrastructure and aging systems. It doesn’t appear that the company heeded those early warning signs, and when the bow broke, it really broke. Southwest Airlines is instructive for those of us who still have an opportunity to enact change.
What is happening within your organization or life that you know you should address? What feedback have you heard from customers, including employees? When was the last time you conducted an internal survey to gauge the culture and feelings about your organization?
What is the thing that, if it became public, could disrupt your ability to fulfill the organizational or professional mission? What feedback have you received that you have brushed aside as insignificant or as something to address later?
As you ponder those questions, be careful not to do so in isolation. Do so with trusted partners and colleagues. Encourage them to be brutally honest, and challenge yourself to hear without defending. It is in honest conversations such as those that you can spot, address and avert a crisis.
Ask yourself: “What actions can I take today that could benefit my future company or self?” Don’t wait until you have the glare of angry customers to make a change. Start now.