How Southwest Put Social Media at the Center of Its Business and Why It Worked on Bloody Sunday


[Editor’s Note: In our conversations with PR and marketing executives, a recurring theme is how brands are struggling to take their social media to a higher level. That’s where Southwest Airlines was several years ago. Weeks ago we asked Linda Rutherford, VP, communication and outreach for Southwest, to explain what the brand did to reshape its social media effort. By coincidence (we’re good, but not that good) two Sundays ago, a technical glitch hit the airline, delaying some 800 of its 3,400 flights. As it turns out, the communication and social business teams were mainstays of the airline’s response, which in an online piece PR News praised for its “nonstop stream of tweets to individual passengers” and the use of its blog to keep customers informed. Also praised was the pizza SW employees served to customers waiting on long lines that day at LAX. “It’s not much, but it shows that the company understood it should do something for customers in the moment and in person, beyond tweeting and advising,” wrote. So we also asked Rutherford about social’s role during that difficult day. Her comments are below.]

As many brands finding their way in social, Southwest Airlines tested a lot of things to see what would stick. We didn’t start with a strategy. Instead we started with a conversation. We began with a corporate blog,, which launched in 2006. It was a great platform to show Southwest’s personality and allowed us to dial up different voices by featuring employees in various positions, from network planner to mechanic. It created conversations with our fans and Southwest devotees and allowed them to get a behind-the-scenes view of the airline. From there, we started a Facebook fan page and got ourselves a Twitter handle and watched excitedly as our followers went from 70 to 1,000 to one million and so on.

We wanted permission to play with our fans in the spaces where they spent time: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. We continued to grow our fan base during the next several years.

At this point, with an established fan base across platforms, it probably would have been easier to stay the course, keeping our social effort doing what it was doing. Instead we took a different path—we hit the pause button at the end of 2012. For one year.

We used the time to utilize some outside thinking from PwC and Altimeter Group to evolve our thinking about social media. As a result, we stepped back and thought, “OK, now what?” We had been successful in creating relationships, surprising and delighting customers and raising awareness of our product. What did we need to do to take our social media activities to the next level?

Silo Busting and the Thought Process: We decided the first thing we needed to do was break down social silos. Second, we decided we would adopt a particular way to think about social. We concluded it would work best for us to put social at the center of what we do rather than making it a “bolt on” to our other activities. Location, Location, Location: We spent considerable time discussing where a team to oversee social should reside. The easy answers: in communications and/or marketing. But, we still had concerns about silos. Instead, we decided to create a Hub Team at the enterprise level, with representatives from across the company, with both solid- and dotted-line reporting relationships to underscore the importance of working across disciplines and collaboratively. The Hub Team is comprised of representatives from communications, marketing and customer relations. Representatives work across departments and functions to build a social business roadmap to put social capabilities at the center of the customer experience and help Southwest bring the brand into the next era.

Executives as Informed Advocates: The team reports to one executive, who is accountable. In addition, we formed and invited executives to participate in an Executive Steering Group (ESG). The social business team works alongside technology, marketing, strategic planning, customer relations and communications to create an enterprise approach to the company’s social persona. The ESG meets regularly to review progress against roadmap goals, hear about obstacles and provide input on strategic direction. This was done intentionally to keep executives across multiple disciplines both informed of the strategy and in a position to provide advocacy when/if needed.

Strategic Direction: A multi-year roadmap drives the strategic work. The team has dotted-line relationships into the functional areas to ensure everyone stays in sync. It is far from perfect but there have been tremendous wins to show the approach is working. Departments are more engaged in the overall strategy, and social engagement isn’t viewed as “only” a communication project or program.

Learning by Listening: Last, we established a Corporate Listening Center and made it a visible part of the headquarters building. Outside visitors pass by the center daily, tours are scheduled and teams from around the company have visited to understand what we’re listening for, how we report what we find and how the center might be able to help them with a project they are undertaking. If you are a brand that has gone multi-platform, a piece of advice: Spend some time understanding what each community wants and needs from you as a storyteller and content provider/curator. That’s why listening is important to us. What we’ve learned:

  • Twitter has become a successful social care platform for our customer relations department to solve customer problems in real time.
  • Facebook has become a place people look for news, fare deals and special events.
  • Instagram brings the brand to life in pictures.
  • Periscope allows Southwest to show off the airline up close and personal.

Other social business wins for us: a social customer care team has been formed and is connected to the airline’s operations center; a group of community managers is working to curate content across all the social platforms; and work is under way to get smarter about how our customers use social, especially when planning travel.

BONUS CONTENT FOR SUBSCRIBERS: See Southwest’s social org chart at:

CONTACT: @SWAfollower [email protected]