Southwest and their use of social media to preempt media crisis

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As a media professional, I am always reading stories about how companies handle different media issues. Here is one that I found interesting.

Southwest Airlines airline spokesman Paul Flaningan spoke to an audience at a Social Media for PR and Corporate Communications Conference in Florida recently where he explained his company’s broad use of social media and how they handle media crisis issues. Among the stories he related, here are my three favorites – the Fare Sale, the Open Mic and the Fuselage Hole. These stories were reported by Matt Wilson at Ragan Communications (story link)

The Fare Sale was something that Southwest generated. They offered fare deals through their Facebook page. The response was so tremendous that the system flooded and there were technical mishaps such as duplicate charges up to 50 times duplication. The airline moved quickly to fix the mistakes but says that next time they have a handful of bloggers promote special offers to keep it manageable.

The Open Mic story was an issue whereby negative comments about flight attendants by a pilot when the air control tower mic was live could have been embarrassing for the company had they not acted quickly. The public information was floated to a news station but for about a day, nothing was really mentioned. Southwest’s vice president of flight operations immediately recorded a video about how the comments were not to be tolerated and posted it to an internal site. By the time the pilot’s comments became major news, Southwest had a response it could put on its public media website. According to Flaningan, “We’re busier when there’s nothing going on because we are constantly preparing and altering our contingency plans to address things that could happen. Communicators meet up every month to update those plans. Pre-approved statements for various scenarios each have an executive spokesperson attached.”

The Fuselage Hole is an example of a passenger who tweeted the occurrence of a hole that popped open in the fuselage while mid-flight between Phoenix and Sacramento. The passenger was using the plane’s new WIFI service. The first tweet reported it in nine minutes compared to twenty minutes via dispatch. Luckily, Southwest’s social media team monitors social channels incessantly and they are building a command station to be dubbed “The Listening Post.” That’s how Southwest was able to pull together a blog post about the situation—the plane made an emergency landing in Yuma, Ariz., within two hours of the emergency. The passenger who initially tweeted about the hole was a Southwest fan and a calm person. By the time the story hit the morning news shows the next day, she was talking up the crew’s professional handling of the incident.

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