S&T Live Recap: For Southwest Airlines, a Complex Crisis Required a ‘Thoughtful Communication Plan’

“Whenever we get into any crisis moment, the guiding principles for us are compassion and action,” said Linda Rutherford, chief administration and communications officer for Southwest Airlines. “Who are the involved audiences, what’s going on with them and how can we show movement?”

Rutherford was the guest speaker for the May 24 episode of Strategies & Tactics Live, PRSA’s monthly livestream series on LinkedIn.

The winter storm of December 2022 caused equipment and staffing problems for Southwest and prevented about 2 million of its customers from reaching their destinations. “For us, the key audience was certainly the employees, whether they were answering calls in our call center, or they were in our airports trying to inform and direct customers about what to do,” Rutherford said from her office in Dallas.

“We needed to be sure that we had good information getting out to our employees, so that they, in turn, could educate customers,” she said. “And then we needed to make sure that [employees] understood how we were going to be taking care of them, so they could in turn take care of the travelers whose plans had been disrupted.”

John Elsasser, editor-in-chief of PRSA’s award-winning Strategies & Tactics publication and host of S&T Live, asked Rutherford about the challenges of responding to the news media during the crisis.

“There were thousands of media inquiries over that several-day period, and I think we did a good job,” she said. “We were timely and responsive in getting back to the media. Now, if those thousands of media calls had all wanted [to interview the] CEO or the chief operating officer, we weren’t going to be able to accommodate that volume.”

The company’s CEO, Bob Jordan, had made “numerous public apologies for ruining people’s holidays,” Rutherford said. But as Southwest worked to find solutions to the staffing and equipment problems that were forcing the airline to cancel flights, “we weren’t yet ready to put a senior-level officer out there” to address the media, she said.

Then, the Friday before the New Year’s holiday weekend, Southwest arranged for Jordan to appear on “Good Morning America” to say that, after trying some approaches that had not worked, the airline had found “a dramatic reset” that was working.

“We were responding to the media all along the way, but we made the decision to allow our CEO to focus on getting to the right answer internally to reset the flight network, and then be able to talk about what had happened and what we were going to do to try and make it right by our customers,” Rutherford said.

Given the complexities of the crisis, “we were as timely and accurate as we could be,” she said. And as Southwest works to rebuild its reputation and implement its action plan for the future, “We have been diligent in telling the story. A complex issue requires a thoughtful communication plan.”

You can watch the playback of the conversation on LinkedIn. Read the Q&A with Rutherford in the May issue of Strategies & Tactics.

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