CEO Q&A: Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines

Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines speaks with Rose Gordon about its usage and measurement of PR.

Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines speaks with Rose Gordon about its usage and measurement of PR.

PRWeek: What are some ways that communications is helping to achieve your goals for Southwest Airlines (SWA)?

Kelly: Communication is a passion point for us. There are 35,000 employees, and to operate 3,330 daily departures with 540 airplanes takes a great deal of teamwork and communication.

One of the objectives we've been pursuing this decade is to provide our customers more service. In particular, we're trying to utilize new communications channels. We were the first airline to deploy a Web site back in the mid-1990s. We were the first airline to have an interactive blog in 2006.

PRWeek: You have an accounting background, and were the CFO for SWA before becoming CEO. How do you expect PR to be accountable from a financial standpoint? What do you seek in terms of ROI?

Kelly: It's one of those things for which it is hard to apply a financial metric. It's more a brand metric. If you have low brand rankings, then there's probably something wrong with your communications. It could be that you're not delivering against a brand promise.

If there's a lack of awareness from constituents, I would say we're missing the mark. It's one of those areas that is vital to a company's success. It's one of those things that you know when you don't have it and when you've underinvested.

PRWeek: How does this economy affect how you think about marketing and, particularly, communications initiatives?

Kelly: Challenging times like this really beg for transparency, but also a consistency. We like to say we manage the company in good times to be prepared for the bad times. By extension, communications needs to follow. You don't just communicate when things are going well.

If anything you need to communicate more when times are tough, and that's certainly where we find ourselves. When times are challenging it begs for adjustments to stay prosperous or, in the worst case, to avoid bad things from happening within the company.

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