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Media and Crisis Management

Avoiding A PR Hole – Southwest Airlines

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Avoiding A PR Hole – Southwest AirlinesFrom archives

When the Federal Aviation Administration first threatened fining Southwest Airlines $10.2 million for skipping structural inspections on 46 still-flying older planes, the airline almost jumped into a public relations hole – the same hole that swallowed Food Lion in the 1990’s.  Given that FAA inspectors may have been too cozy with airlines in general and Southwest in particular, a less-aggressive tack by Southwest was smart.  We’ll see whether it helps.

First some background.  Almost every crisis poses a direct or indirect threat to someone.  And if the crisis involves your organization, potential victims want to know, “Am I safe?”  Your mission is to reassure them through actions and words that they are safe.

When the FAA went after Southwest in early March, the airline challenged the agency.  Southwest, which self-disclosed the maintenance errors, insisted that “at no time” was it operating in an unsafe manner.  It hired a former federal crash investigator who said that some structural cracks on the planes did not pose a flight safety issue. Boeing said the 737’s were safe.  CEO Gary Kelly blamed maintenance lapses on a paperwork gap.  He did order an internal investigation.  The Wall Street Journal said “…Southwest took an unusually combative public stance…”  I had the same reaction and thought it unwise to joust with a public agency over whether aircraft were trustworthy.  Would travelers believe the airline or the FAA?  My bet was the FAA.

It reminded me of the Food Lion/ABC flap of 1992.  ABC News reported questionable sanitation practices at the grocery chain.  The story was award-winning and riveting.  The company’s response?  Sue ABC for more than $2 billion in damages for surreptitious and deceptive reporting techniques.  Overlooked, in my opinion, was that customers didn’t care about ABC.  They only wanted to know, “Are the groceries safe?”  A CEO network interview repeated the tactic of attacking the reporting and not reassuring customers about food safety. The legal fight lasted seven years. Food Lion won in court but only achieved a $2 fine against ABC after appeals.  An appellate judge did criticize the reporters for manipulative and illegal practices.  I kept wondering why the company didn’t put as much effort into reassuring customers as it did into fighting ABC.  The grocer lost much business.  Like Food Lion with ABC, I wondered if Southwest was going to take on the FAA.

After four days Southwest Airlines reversed field.  The company stopped debating the FAA, placed three employees on administrative leave and pledged to fix internal deficiencies.  CEO Kelly said he was concerned.  The next day Southwest voluntarily grounded 38 aircraft and canceled dozens of flights because it wasn’t confident in important safety inspections.

The following day CEO Kelly apologized to customers and regulators for the maintenance mistakes and said he hoped to settle the proposed fine.  Instead of criticizing the FAA as he had earlier, he told the Journal that Southwest would cooperate with the agency.  He admitted some have lost trust in the airline and said, “We will have to regain that trust.”

This is better than the original counterattack, but Southwest and the FAA still must persuade congressional investigators and the public that they weren’t “in bed” and won’t be in the future.  Further reassurance without acrimony will be paramount.

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