How Southwest Communicated News and Empathy in the Aftermath of Flight 1380

Few communications teams are better trained and more adept than the one Linda Rutherford heads at Southwest Airlines. Communications works closely with social media staff at Southwest to craft an integrated response to incidents ranging from relatively small ones to crises. We’ve commented previously on how well Southwest communicates during troublesome situations, such as when a computer glitch in its booking system grounded thousands of passengers for hours. Southwest also had its own passenger-removal incident. It’s clear the carrier and Rutherford’s communicators learned lessons from Dr. David Dao’s removal on United.

A member of PR News’ Measurement Hall of Fame, Rutherford works in an industry where communications and crisis communications are particularly important. The nature of aviation is what occurs so often—flights come and go without incident—is barely noticed. The few instances where things fail to go as planned, well, they receive tremendous media coverage. Sometimes, of course, those unplanned instances result in innocent lives being lost.

As communicators know, social media means every passenger on an aircraft (or every customer in your store, office, restaurant or Starbucks) is a journalist and a videographer. Dao’s removal from an aircraft was a regrettable and memorable story, but it became even more so when passengers throughout the cabin documented it on video and posted it socially.

The fatal incident April 17 aboard Southwest flight 1380 from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Love Field in Dallas, which diverted to and landed in Philadelphia, was a devastating story. That some of the 144 passengers were documenting it and later posting their thoughts to social made some of the press coverage indelible. Such digital reporting can help or hurt. More on this below.

shutterstock_247497571As you’d expect, Rutherford and her team moved quickly. They communicated brief statements on several social networks and online, quickly relaying what information they had. Later they gathered more facts, confirmed and relayed them. Their brief statement on the main Southwest offered a link to a longer statement.

They also posted a video from CEO Gary Kelly  about the incident. Kelly strikes an appropriate conciliatory tone in the brief video.

“Good crisis response happens long before a disaster or a death; there’s no time for planning after a crisis, only action,” says APCO media relations director Anthony DeAngelo. “Southwest showed it was prepared. Their response was fast, set the right tone and put the right people out front to address the issue.”

While the airline conveyed technical information in its short statements—“the crew reported issues with the number one engine which resulted in damage to the fuselage”—it wisely made sure to sound human, too: “We are deeply saddened to confirm that there is one fatality resulting from this accident. The entire Southwest Airlines Family is devastated and extends its deepest, heartfelt sympathy to the Customers, Employees, Family Members, and loved ones affected by this tragic event.”

It is notable that in one of its full statements, the headline Southwest affixed to it is not only the official sounding “Southwest Airlines Confirms Accident,” but also “Our Hearts Are With Those Affected.” Appropriately it adds the time and date the statement was issued.

Another wise move is that while Southwest concentrated its longer statement on communicating the most vital facts, it also noted, “We extend our heartfelt appreciation to the Southwest pilots and flight attendants who acted professionally and swiftly to take care of our customers during the emergency diversion and landing.”

Media reports tell of crew members who went well beyond the call during the flight, not to mention the pilots, who managed to land the plane safely. Southwest was wise to allow passengers to relay accounts of its crew’s outstanding behavior.

It even did a good job by partially resisting the “our thoughts and prayers” verbiage, which can sound boilerplate and as a result insincere. Instead it ended the longer statement with, “Please join the Southwest Family in keeping all of those affected by today’s tragedy in your thoughts.”

Pending a federal investigation into the incident, Southwest’s “next challenge will be to restore customers’ faith in them as a safe and reliable airline, DeAngelo says.  “Those next steps will be watched very carefully.”

 Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein