Southwest shows us how to handle a PR crisis

Southwest Airlines turned a safety nightmare into a PR coup that proves the brand really does care about its customers.

We’ve all seen the amazingly campy Southwest Airlines ads that tell us they love our bags so much, they get to fly free. Southwest is trying to prove they are the airline that cares about true service, and it’s an incredibly powerful differentiator in an industry that feels like it will eventually charge us for cups of water. And instead of unrealistic visions of clouds and comfortable passengers with miles of legroom  that other airlines show in their ads, Southwest uses humor and personality to say, “Look, we know flying sucks these days. We’re going to try to make it as fun an experience for you as we can.”

This is carried through down to the employee level. I recently flew Southwest and the flight attendant, upon landing, joked, “How many of you checked bags today?” Many of us raised our hands. Then she asked, “And how much did you pay for those bags?” The answer was a resounding shout of “Nothing!” “That’s right!” she said, “Here at Southwest, we love you and we love your bags, too!”

Recently, Southwest was in the news for a large gash that expectantly tore through a 737 fuselage mid-flight. The plane made an emergency landing and everyone was unharmed. This could have caused a brand fiasco, a PR nightmare. But Southwest stepped up and showed why they are a power brand.

How?  According to this WSJ article, by doing the right thing: being proactive and transparent and putting their passengers before profits. The article reads like a 24 episode, a blow by blow of what happened as the PR crisis unfolded. Every action Southwest took makes you love this brand even more.

They transparently kept press and passengers in the loop on the situation. They also stepped out in front of it by  cancelling hundreds of flights and grounding their entire fleet of 737’s until the cause of the tear could be determined. They walked their talk and showed they really do care about their customers.

Turns out Boeing, the manufacturer, said their models were flawed in terms of wear and tear and are working through tests and investigations with the NTSB. The article states they may have created a  new standard for the industry by being so proactive. “The move allayed passenger concerns and helped the carrier adhere to its aggressive inspection timeline with more control over its own destiny..”

The NTSB praised them for taking action before the government forced them to. That is how you control your brand, even thought it ultimately lives in the minds of your customers. You control all the aspects within your power to ensure people will form the right brand impression.

That’s the thing about brand. It’s all well and good to say you stand for something. But its what you do when the going gets tough that either increases your brand loyalty or completely destroys it. This is one of the marks of a Power Brand: to be able to elegantly recover from a crisis, not just intact, but as a way to prove yourself even more.

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