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Southwest Airlines took a PR hit, but can recover

In case you didn’t hear, Southwest Airlines got into quite a public and customer relations pickle this week. More than a million people reportedly saw flights canceled or lost luggage during a high-volume holiday travel period. Passengers and even some of the airline’s staff took to social media and slammed the airline’s internal operations.

I flew Southwest Friday to Wisconsin (yeah, what was I thinking?!) and gratefully, mine was one of the many routes that was restored. A family member flew to Austin, Texas and he also arrived safely and on time.

Southwest has mostly owned its errors, but only after unacceptable corporate silence, and airline staff that wrote posts about what was really causing more than 60 percent of its flights to be canceled (most bad weather was long gone).

Before I flew, I scribbled a few ways Southwest Airlines could quasi-quickly recover from its public relations hit.

• Act quickly — as in the next week —  to compensate inconvenienced passengers. This includes reimbursement for fees related to rebooking on different airlines, car rentals, hotel stays and meals. Additionally, Southwest should credit each traveler whose flight was canceled with a complimentary trip during the next year and they will forgive faster.

• Be transparent — Southwest CEO Bob Jordan must own the airlines’ error more than once. He’s relatively new to his position so he risks little in saying that the company’s technical infrastructure was ineffective when a countrywide weather event knocked schedules off the grid. Jordan and only Jordan should repeat, “We screwed up and that’s why we’re fast-tracking a new system for how we schedule and communicate with staff and passengers. They’ve been loyal to us, and now it’s our turn to show it to them.” Then prove it daily.

• Provide weekly updates — When flight schedules return to normal, which looks to be quite soon, show the public how Southwest is making good on its promises and post working video, not just talking heads. Offer travel reporters a look into the work being done, including reuniting passengers with their luggage.

• Profusely thank support staff who took the hits — These people were on Southwest’s front lines when the public heard nothing from airline brass. Remind the public that gate agents, pilots, flight attendants and others are not to blame. They should be publicly and privately thanked — and given bonuses.

Will this cost Southwest a boatload of money? Yes, but it has to accept that for poor and lack of planning. People will fly Southwest again and will do so quickly if it does the above.

All businesses should be prepared to respond at moment’s notice to operational disruptions or worse. Contact me to outline your crisis communications plan now.


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