Southwest Airlines flies about 100 million people every year.
With a number of customers that big, "the potential for things to go awry is always there," airline spokesman Paul Flaningan told an audience at Ragan Communications' Social Media for PR and Corporate Communications Conference at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Things have gone awry, sometimes in a big way. Yet Southwest has avoided any major wounds to its reputation through quick action, smart responses, active customer ambassadors on social media, and planning. Flaningan ran through four of the biggest crises the airline has faced in recent years and how the communications team dealt with them.
The fare sale
To celebrate acquiring its 3 millionth Facebook "like," Southwest offered a fare sale with some significant deals, exclusively through Facebook. It proved to be a smash hit.
In fact, it was a little too popular. The system flooded and a technical mishap led people to be billed multiple times, as many as 50.
Southwest quickly corrected the erroneous charges, but many customers were understandably unhappy. Other customers, however, stepped in to say Southwest didn't overcharge on purpose and emphasized that the airline was fixing the mishap.
"There's a lot of self-correcting and a lot of self-policing," Flaningan said. Sometimes, he said, it's better to simply let folks talk it out among themselves instead of stepping in.
Likewise, Flaningan said Southwest is targeting its communications regarding events such as fare sales a little more directly. The airline may reach out to just three or four bloggers to publicize a sale.
"That spreads like wildfire just as if we would send a news release," he says.
The open mic
In June 2011, a pilot calling in to an air traffic control tower accidentally left his radio on and launched into some uncomplimentary words regarding flight attendants. A tower crew member floated those comments, which are public, to a local news station.
The rant didn't get much attention in its first day, but Southwest's vice president of flight operations sprang to action anyway, recording a video about how the comments were not to be tolerated and posting it to an internal site. By the time the audio of the pilot's comments was major news the next day, Southwest had a response it could put on its public media website.
"It was very forceful and he meant it," Flaningan said.
By the fourth day, there were 3,000 stories and 10,000 social media mentions regarding the incident. If Southwest hadn't been prepared for it, it may have spiraled out of control. Flaningan and the communications team work diligently to prepare for every contingency, be it a mechanical problem or an employee slip-up.
"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," he said.
Communicators meet up every month to update those plans. Pre-approved statements for various scenarios each have an executive spokesperson attached, Flaningan said.
"We're getting all the buy-in right at the beginning," he noted.
The fuselage hole
With Wi-Fi now available on Southwest planes, social media users are reporting crises before the official Southwest dispatch channel can.
For instance, when a hole popped open in the fuselage of a plane going from Phoenix to Sacramento, Calif., the first tweet about it was online within nine minutes. Dispatch didn't report it until about 20 minutes later.
Luckily, Southwest's social media team monitors social channels incessantly. The airline is even building a command station it's planning to dub "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.
Another big help? 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.
Flaningan explains how Wi-Fi access on planes has affected how quickly Southwest must respond:
On Valentine's Day 2011, a customer complained that movie director Kevin Smith was too big to fit in his seat on a Southwest flight. When a Southwest employee informed Smith about the complaint, he started tweeting some occasionally vulgar tweets about the company.
"Our customers wanted to come to our aid," Flaningan said. "We had to let them know, hey, we're seeing Kevin Smith's tweets. We understand. We're working with him."
Smith didn't reply to Southwest's tweets offering help, but the airline carefully watched how the story played out.
"Sometimes, that's the most important thing you can do, just let people know you're on it," Flaningan said.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.