How Southwest Airlines needs to solve its PR crisis (and save its soul)
Following an epic meltdown that tortured thousands of its formerly loyal customers, PRophet CEO Aaron Kwittken explains what the beleaguered airline needs to do right now.
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About 10 years ago I went on Bloomberg TV to talk about how Southwest Airlines handled its safety issues. I mostly gave it high marks and reminded viewers that it’s not easy managing reputational issues in the airline industry – in part because so many of the factors airlines contend with are out of their control, like the weather. Back then, Southwest was dogged about tethering its brand communications to its very strong and once enviable culture and set of values that centered around being frivolous, fun and accessible to everyone. ,
About a month ago I was invited to the Business Travel Association’s annual meeting to participate in a panel discussion questioning if business travel had an image problem. I somewhat graciously and back-handedly took the position that the industry didn’t have an image problem more than other industries. I posited that we had an opportunity to better create mutuality among key stakeholders by moving away from narratives around pricing and actually taking a stand on social issues and leaning into cultural currency. My point of view assumed that the industry (most notably the airlines, since they seem to be demonized the most) by now had the basic stuff in hand – even low-cost darlings like Southwest. I was wrong.
I don’t need to rehash the details and fallout surrounding the horrific amount of Southwest’s holiday flight cancellations (around 17,000), lost luggage, missed weddings and lifecycle events, and a loss of nearly $1bn. Customers, employees, investors and regulators are furious. They want resolutions, reparations and assurances that Southwest’s ’air-mageddon’ never happens again.
So now what? How can Southwest save its soul? Here are the five steps to consider:
The board needs to act and visibly hold management more accountable. Consider replacing both the CEO and CTO. Maybe even the chairman of the board, formerly the CEO. Bring in an interim CEO from a mature airline who has operational and technology experience. Have them recruit a new CTO to completely overhaul the airline’s systems and evaluate its technology partners, vendors, people and processes.
Stop focusing on being the darling of Wall Street and start working hard to get your customers back on board. Reimbursing fares and returning lost luggage are table stakes. Instead of spending precious capital on stock buybacks, send every impacted customer a voucher for a free round-trip flight to be used this year.
Be as accessible to trade and mainstream press as possible, communicating with great detail what’s being done, when and what to expect.
Consider a rebrand after this passes. Wells Fargo did it when it ’re-established’ itself following a very distrustful run with consumers.
Be visibly cooperative with federal and state regulators and consumer rights groups. And work with third-party aviation consultants and consumer advocates to form your own passenger bill of rights.
Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s colorful and immensely respected founder who died in 2019, once said: ”Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems. Effective leadership finds its source in understanding.” Kelleher built a great airline by challenging convention and the larger, dominant carriers. This one pull quote may have been the harbinger of impending doom for the carrier.
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Southwest’s mass cancellations were in fact an epic failure directly related to the company’s lack of investment in its systems. Now it needs to save its ’soul’.
Aaron Kwittken is founder and CEO of PRophet.