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 pandemic's start. Internally, employees needed information about safety measures, including distribution of PPE. Moreover, the need for employee self-care suggestions 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 other staffers around the airline 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 to stimulate demand and get people comfortable with traveling again, we needed to come up with a series of things we were doing differently,” she said. This prompted videos explaining and demonstrating:

  • aircraft and airport cleaning protocols
  • distancing through blocked middle seats
  • boarding in smaller groups and
  • mask wearing

As information changed rapidly, communicators updated FAQs in concert with policy and procedure switches. They also leaned on the carrier's listening center for input on passenger concerns.

'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 now is a more robust document.

Still, Rutherford and the team, like nearly everyone during this latest pandemic's early months, pivoted often. In addition, she relied on a tactic of crisis communication: Even when you lack answers to every question, respond promptly and clearly with whatever information is available.

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