In PR News' conversations with PR and marketing professionals we'll often ask which brands they look to most for inspiration and ideas to use in their own digital communications. One company we hear mentioned over and over again is Southwest Airlines, a longtime leader in social media communications, measurement and, not least, the building of brand loyalty.
This is no mean feat, given that airlines, like cable TV providers, have to deal with built-in grumpiness from customers.
It's practically a given that Southwest knows how to handle itself in good times and in bad—and yesterday's electronic customer service breakdown that hobbled passenger and luggage check-ins was definitely one of the bad times. On Sunday, Oct. 11, approximately 836 of its 3,355 planned flights were delayed, according to the Nuts About Southwest blog. By today the technology systems were "performing normally," but that's small solace for those Southwest customers who suffered through a day of "pure hell," as reported by NBC News and the Associated Press.
Any passengers that had not printed out their boarding passes beforehand were forced to wait in long lines—some outside in draining heat—as agents wrote out boarding passes by hand. The situation was compounded for passengers trying to check in luggage.
For some of those passengers, no amount of communications "LUV" (the airline's NYSE handle) from Southwest will erase yesterday's misery, but let's take a look at what the airline did right.
1. Southwest never stopped tweeting important information and gestures of sympathy to individuals on Twitter. The airline sent out a couple of general tweets yesterday ("We apologize for this morning's technical issues. We are working to restore service to our customers, and we appreciate your patience," "If traveling today, see advisory regarding today's technical issues and arrive at least 2 hrs prior to departure") but also has been typing out a nonstop stream of tweets to individual passengers ("Disappointed to hear you're unhappy with us, Deidre. We'd love to know more, so please send us a DM with more info," "Disappointed to learn about your bag, Tracy. Please DM us your flight confirmation number so we may followup," "We're very sorry for the delay, Zyanya. Please DM your conf #. We'd be happy to look into this for you.").
2. The airline used its own blog as an advisory for passengers heading to airports yesterday and today. Southwest shared a link to a Nuts About Southwest blog post that urged passengers to check in and print boarding passes before coming to the airport. For years Southwest has built awareness of the Nuts About Southwest blog, so many customers and journalists already knew where to go for updates.
3. Southwest thanked its own employees in the midst of the tech breakdown and its immediate aftermath. In a blog post, Southwest wrote: "It’s never too early to say thank you and to extend our apologies and we want to share those sentiments both with our hard-working employees and our loyal and understanding customers, whom we hope to welcome back for a better experience soon. We’ll continue to work individually with our affected customers to make this right."
4. Free pizza. At Los Angeles' LAX, where the lines were particularly long, Southwest employees handed out pizza to waiting passengers. It's not much, but it shows that the company understood that it should do something for its customers in the moment and in person, beyond tweeting and advising.
Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI