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Southwest grieves Midway tragedy; Experts say airline''s culture is a strength in this situation

I hate to play Monday morning quarterback when it comes to crisis communications response, having been on the other end as people second guess decisions with limited understanding of the strategic underpinnings of crisis-related decisions. However, when I was recently contacted by the Dallas Morning News and asked to comment on how Southwest handled the response after one of its planes skidded off the runway in Chicago, I thought their team deserved a pat on the back for doing a good job.

The article below from the Dec. 10, 2005 edition of the Dallas Morning News is a good illustration of how valuable a positive corporate reputation can be in times of crisis. When Southwest was faced with its first fatal accident, the media and the public gave the company and its employees the benefit of the doubt. Within days the company had moved past the story and had escaped significant scrutiny of its management, employees or safety practices.

An important part of that success was the willingness of Southwest''s CEO to face the cameras and sincerely express his sorrow and concern. In our Media Interview Skills Training sessions, we often run up against executives who simply can''t do this effectively. They have a block that seems to prevent them from expressing emotion. Some worry that saying too much might suggest that they are accepting blame. 

Not so. Expressing sorrow and concern in no way suggests an individual or company are to blame. In fact, a company in crisis has more at stake than anyone in finding out what happened and making sure steps are taken to ensure it never happens again. Southwest did this and, in the end, will emerge from this incident with its reputation intact. Can you truthfully say that your organization''s crisis response team and its spokesperson would be able to do it as well?

Here is the Dallas Morning News piece: 

The airline industry''s most dynamic corporate culture grieved Friday over its first flight-related fatality in 34 years of flying, but experts said Southwest Airlines Co. should be able to maintain its legendary spirit.

"They''re sitting in a war room there with their hearts broken about this," he said. "But they''re an incredibly compassionate bunch, and also a bunch that has a true warrior spirit that will get them through this."

What helped soothe the tragedy was the carrier''s swift move to unroll its emergency plan, said spokeswoman Brandy King, who took dozens of media calls Friday in a special phone bank set up for such incidents.

"There was a hint of sadness here because we are so heartfelt here," she said of the scene at Southwest''s headquarters at Dallas Love Field, where chief executive Gary Kelly addressed reporters at 7:30 a.m.

A dejected-looking Mr. Kelly, along with about 90 other managers, then boarded a spare Southwest plane to Chicago to aid passengers and others involved on the affected flight.

"We do all pull together and work together like a family," Ms. King said.

Southwest''s first concern has always been its 33,000 employees, who are hand-picked in a screening process that is statistically more rigorous than Ivy League admissions.

Prospective pilots have been known to disqualify themselves by being curt to receptionists before interviews. Hiring managers sometimes pose as applicants to get unfiltered impressions of job candidates in waiting rooms.

Southwest''s thinking is that smiling flight attendants and gate agents charged with nurturing customers will lead to a higher level of service that ultimately yields rewards to shareholders.

The discounter has decorated the walls of its headquarters with framed montages of snapshots celebrating employee milestones and events. It isn''t uncommon to see employees laughing and often hugging in the hallways.

But there''s more behind that upbeat persona, said Jody Hoffer Gittell, author of The Southwest Way: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance.

Few see the carrier''s dedication to safety and efficiency, she said.

"They''re very thoughtful about their investments in quality and how much they care about safety," said Ms. Gittell, an assistant professor at Brandeis University''s school for social policy and management. "It''s a testament to them that after all these years, this is their first fatality."

Southwest will treat the death as if they''ve lost one of their own, Ms. Gittell said. "It''s a very personal culture – you can tell by the statements they''ve given so far that it''s a very serious loss to them."

Being authentic

But don''t expect much, if any, change to the carrier''s lighthearted approach to public relations.

"Authenticity has always been such a big part of their culture – they are who they are – and I don''t think things will change in the least," Mr. Frieberg said. "That said, I would expect that if you''re flying them in the next 10 days, that you''d see a more somber spirit out there."

Losing their perfect safety record "is a blow to them," said airline consultant Alan Sbarra, because it was a point of pride that they were the only large, long-lived domestic carrier without a fatality.

"I wouldn''t be surprised if they toned it down a bit in the short term, but it''s not going to change the way they do things."

Others agreed that the painful incident could focus Southwest.

"It should solidify their culture," said analyst Mike Boyd of the Boyd Group. "It''s a one-off for them – it was quite a bit of weather at the time."

More subdued

The carrier didn''t issue orders to rein in the normally creative pre-flight announcements that are a Southwest trademark, Ms. King said, though some passengers at Love Field on Friday said the mood was subdued.

On her flight to Dallas, "there weren''t any jokes, but it was also early in the morning," said passenger Kim Kennedy.

Ms. Kennedy was at Chicago''s Midway Airport on Thursday evening, before the Boeing 737 ran off the runway and into an intersection there, but didn''t hear about the incident until after she was off the plane.

Dallas resident Rod Baltzer learned about the accident from Southwest''s Web site while checking in for his flight. During his flights to and from Austin on Thursday, it seemed like business as usual, he said.

"They weren''t singing songs, but it didn''t seem like people were depressed or anything," Mr. Baltzer said

Crisis management

Consultants who work with companies during crises gave Southwest fairly high marks. The carrier had dealt with a similar runway overrun in Burbank, Calif., in March 2000.

Dan Keeney of Southlake-based DPK Public Relations said Southwest''s messages properly conveyed the sympathy and commitment to finding out how to prevent such an accident again.

But the airline''s first public statements weren''t sent out to news media for more than two hours after the accident – far too long, Mr. Keeney said.

"Normally you should get something out within 10 to 15 minutes," he said. "That''s two hours of news crews buzzing around your plane in the street."

Wall Street hardly reacted to the accident, with Southwest shares down 14 cents to $16.30 in light trading Friday.

Dan Keeney
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