Despite its Pandemic-Response Plan, Southwest Airlines Pivoted Often

Southwest Promise

Ask people for their 2020 Word of the Year. Many PR pros will say pivot.

Similar to those in many sectors, communicators at Southwest Airlines had full plates at the start of the pandemic. Internally, employees needed messages about safety measures, including distribution of PPE. Moreover, the need to offer suggestions for employee self-care rose. Externally, the team communicated COVID-19 travel procedures. In addition, PR pros at the carrier's headquarters were working remotely, a fairly new concept for them. Many staffers around the company were at home too. The carrier distributed 2,500 laptops at the pandemic's start. Pivoting was a daily occurrence.

Part of the carrier's response was Southwest Promise, an “opportunity for us to show off our agility as an organization to pivot,” said Linda Rutherford, SVP & CCO. She keynoted PRNEWS’ Crisis Management Virtual Event this week.

“We knew that in order to stimulate demand, to get people comfortable with traveling again, we needed to come up with a series of things we were doing differently,” she said. This need prompted explaining and demonstrating (via video) aircraft and airport cleaning protocols, encouraging distancing through blocked middle seats, boarding in smaller groups and promoting masks.

As things changed rapidly, communicators updated FAQs in concert with policy and procedure switches and leaned on its listening center to gauge frequently asked questions.

'Grab the Pandemic-Response Plan'

Unlike many companies, Southwest entered COVID-19 with a pandemic-response plan, which it used during the H1N1 pandemic, in 2009. What started as several pages with checklists is a more robust document now.

Still, Rutherford and the team, like nearly everyone else during this latest pandemic's early months, were pivoting often. A helpful tactic, she said, is a hallmark of crisis communication: Even if you don’t have answers to every question, respond promptly and clearly with whatever updated information is available.

Rutherford’s presentation, as well as all the sessions from the PRNEWS Crisis Management Virtual Event, are available on demand here.