Lessons in Crisis Communications: What Went Right in the Southwest Christmas 2022 Travel Disaster

An unfortunate combination of high passenger traffic, record-setting temperatures and wild winter storms left airlines scrambling to get customers to and from their destinations ahead of the 2022 Christmas holiday. While many airlines recovered in a day or two, Southwest Airlines canceled 63% of its flights, leading to chaos for millions left scrambling to reach their destinations.

For Southwest, this was an operational disaster. But, on the communications front, Southwest Air CEO Bob Jordan put several tried-and-true crisis communications tactics to use to make the best of a seemingly impossible situation. Here’s a short list.

  1. Admit mistakes. Jordan quickly hit the news circuit on behalf of his organization to try and take control of the situation and disclose what was happening. Quite simply, he stated, “We messed up and caused problems and we need to fix our problems, but it did start with this historic storm.” Though the admission is perhaps too little, too late for some families that were stuck in limbo at the airport, it’s a critical first step in showing leadership during a time of crisis.
  2. Make things right with customers. Per Jordan, “We had an instance where a couple bought a $500 used car to drive home. We covered it and bought them a car, so to speak.” Southwest also gave about 2 million folks an estimated $300 in the carrier’s reward points as a make good. While the amount may seem small, taking action along with an apology is a proven way to keep customers in good graces.
  3. Make things right with employees. Without immediate action from its flight attendants and pilots, the airline likely would have been stuck in crisis mode for far longer. In appreciation, it compensated its staff with premium and “gratitude” pay. Rebuilding trust among staff is critical to move forward, especially if big changes are looming.
  4. Commit to reviewing and fixing problems. A few weeks after the crisis, Southwest Airlines announced that it hired a consulting firm to analyze the meltdown. Jordan was quick to add that “we have work to do,” including an additional investment to upgrade technology and the creation of an operations review committee on the airline’s board. To fully move on from a crisis, it’s critical to show real action and change to repair damage and help ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Crises are an unfortunate but realistic part of any organization. By following many of these crisis communications strategies, our team at The Agency at Sikich has helped countless clients navigate a wide variety of rocky roads – from customer service emergencies, to data breaches, social media trolls to product recalls.

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