CAMPAIGNS: Transition at top off to flying start - Corporate PR

Client: Southwest Airlines

PR Team: In-house

Campaign: CEO transition

Time Frame: March 16-19 (preparation) March 19-current (still fielding

interview requests)

Budget: $15,000-$18,000

Southwest Airlines' longtime CEO Herb Kelleher is a flamboyant sort

known for drinking Wild Turkey, making outlandish comments, and building

one of the US' most profitable airlines. His quixotic leadership helped

create a unique corporate culture where employees get hand-written

birthday cards, and customers get great service at bargain prices. When

Kelleher revealed that he had prostate cancer in fall 2000, nervous

investors and media made announcing a succession plan imperative.

On March 19, a few days past his 70th birthday, Kelleher did just that.

But the top-secret proclamation wasn't divulged to Southwest's in-house

PR team until the 11th hour - giving the 13-person staff just one

weekend to plan a campaign that would make the transition a "Wall Street

non-event," and reassure the public that the airline would stay aloft

without its "giant icon" at the helm, says Linda Rutherford, senior

manager of PR and corporate communications.


Rutherford's team wanted to stress the idea of leadership continuity

through three key messages. First, they wanted to point out that

Kelleher wasn't retiring, and would remain chairman of the board until

2003. Second, they stressed that the new leaders had a long history with


(Incoming CEO James Parker had been with the company since 1986, and

served as corporate counsel and VP. New president and COO Colleen

Barrett was formerly EVP, and had been with Kelleher from the start.

She'd also be the first female president of a US airline.) The last part

of the message was that Parker and Barrett were determined to keep the

airline's focus on superior customer service and its unique corporate


"To customers, we wanted to instill confidence that we'd still be the

same old Southwest Airlines. To employees, we wanted to stress that

there would be a continuity in leadership so that they could feel

secure. To investors, we wanted to introduce Jim and Colleen," says

Rutherford of the campaign's guiding strategy. She adds that the team

didn't want to see the transition framed as a result of Kelleher's



With the clock ticking, the team quickly decided that all outlets would

receive the information at the same time on Monday morning. There would

be no advance briefings for analysts or high-profile press. Instead,

every press request would be honored, and all top execs from Kelleher

down would be made available. Rutherford immediately scheduled blocks of

open time for interviews and photo sessions.

"Our customers would learn about the news via the media, so our effort

with the media was to make sure they had any access they wanted," says


The IR team got the same briefing materials as the PR staff to help the

messages stay consistent. Rutherford also set up an employee hotline,

and posted the information on the company's intranet to spread the



While most major financial outlets called for interviews (The New York

Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes), virtually every report focused

on the team's intended messages, and downplayed Kelleher's cancer.

"I think the entire PR team is extremely pleased at how the media have

welcomed Colleen and Jim," says Rutherford. "It went as smoothly as


Katie Paine, Delahaye Media-link president, agrees. (Delahaye was hired

to evaluate the success of the campaign). After reviewing 124 articles

on the transition, Paine was impressed by their "neutral or positive"


"I've never seen as good a communication of team messages," she says.

Even financial analysts seemed to reiterate the key points, she



Parker and Barrett assumed their new positions in August. Southwest's

in-house PR team will continue to work on internal and external

projects, as well as do some outside consulting.

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