Get it right, right out of the gate.

By Tom Garrity


October 22, 2021 – Right out of the gate, full disclosure: I am a Southwest Airlines A-list flyer. I have enjoyed flying Southwest and will continue fly with this airline. However, the events over the last week and a half have provided enough of a pause that I am now looking at other travel options and renewing my United Presidential status (always good to have a backup plan).

How many other Southwest A-Listers are rethinking travel options?

Southwest Airlines’ lack of establishing a narrative… a believable narrative… is its biggest breach of trust. Was it the Federal Aviation Administration? Pilots Union? Its own infrastructure? What cause the mass flight cancelations? All three of those possible narratives have been blamed and all quickly dismissed by the respective entities.

A friend of mine, flying out to visit an ailing loved one, received a text message with less than 10 hours before her boarding time. The Southwest solution left her stranded two stops short of her destination. Good news, she was able to get to her destination by flying Delta Airlines.

Southwest Airlines, like other companies, are all working through the issues and impacts from this  COVID-19 era. Some companies are responding well, some are not; in this instance, Southwest is not.

From an observer’s perspective (yes the view is always better from the $99 dollar seats), I wondered if somehow Southwest didn’t over extend itself with expanding its route map to include Mexico and Hawaii. I also wondered if the fits and starts of flying, followed by pandemic shutdowns and then ramping up again was too much of a stress on their internal processes.

Exacerbating the eleventh-hour cancelations was the seemingly tone-deaf approach to their marketing, which didn’t pause or even acknowledge the mass cancelations.

A lot of questions left behind in a wake of baggage, confused travelers and negative media coverage.

In the midst of the mass cancelations, the Southwest Airlines marketing team sent a slew of marketing emails to people with Rapid Reward accounts, those who did recent searches on their website and A-Listers who have the Southwest Airlines Credit Card (yes it was a trifecta of emails for me).

While it isn’t even close to Nero playing his violin as Rome burned, it does beg the question, did anyone consider that maybe the marketing should go on hold and/or just acknowledge the current issue at hand?

Ok, time out. Let’s reset. The goal of this post is not to beat down Southwest Airlines, there are plenty of people populating social media with their angst and anxiety. What can we learn?

CEOs and those who manage corporate reputations realize that even the best brands have bad days. The secret is in the handling and communicating of the issues that will determine how quickly you get through those rough patches. Here are some quick takeaways:

  1. Put down the fiddle.
  2. Identify the issue and communicate the issue as quickly as possible,
  3. Communicate with your front-line workers (in this case, gate personnel, pilots, crew, call center representatives), let them know what is going on and what they can share with the customers.
  4. Acknowledge that there is an issue and show compassion to your passengers. Most people are interested in knowing “what’s next” and then getting some idea on “who is to blame.”
  5. Share insights on the problem and short-term solution.
  6. Rebuild the trust through consistent and transparent communication.
  7. Do the right thing, waive any fees, cover hotels, empower your gate team as a kin fog “first responder” to the needs of the customer who is in front of them.

Tom Garrity is the president of The Garrity Group Public Relations and has helped clients to navigate a variety of high profile and confidential issues and crisis situations.

Published October 22, 2021

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