Client: Southwest Airlines
PR Team: In-house
Campaign: CEO transition
Time Frame: March 16-19 (preparation) March 19-current (still fielding
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.