6 questions for Southwest Airlines' CCO Linda Rutherford on outage crisis

Rutherford breaks down the airliner's ongoing comms efforts to normalize business operations and repair its relationship with its customers.

Linda Rutherford
Linda Rutherford

Southwest Airlines' Q2 earnings report this week coincided with a technology outage affecting hundreds of customers, and the launch of an online platform.

On Wednesday, the airline both launched its blog, Southwest Community, and dealt with a technology outage that knocked out its system and website. That day, up to 700 flights were canceled or delayed. The following day, more than 800 flights were cancelled, while the airliner dashed to recover its operation and match aircraft to available crews, Southwest’s VP and CCO Linda Rutherford said.

The communications division is engaging customers across multiple channels, including Southwest Community, Facebook Live, and media outlets. Of the 104 people in Rutherford’s communications and outreach team, two-thirds have been engaged in the response and support efforts.

Rutherford sat down with PRWeek to talk about how her comms team is guiding the company through a turbulent week.

What’s the next step?
We’ve had a bit of a ragged start today. We found we had mismatches. In other words, we might have an airplane in one city, but our crew had timed out the day before and they didn’t get proper rest to fly. We have had some issues today we’re continuing to work through.

When we have our operations up, now that the system is restored, we might be able to do a post-mortem, see if there are any lessons to be learned or if there are things we liked, so we can dynamically update our crisis response plan.

For instance, one thing we used as a tool that we hadn’t used previously was Facebook Live. We had a high level of social engagement with customers to educate them. If they tried calling or emailing us, trying to figure out what’s going on, it was at least a means of explaining the challenges we were facing. We had an initial message last night, which I did, and more of an explanatory type session with our COO this morning.

Do you have any idea what caused this outage?
Not yet. We have to get with our technology partners and better understand how things work. We need to understand what happened before we start articulating that.

Are you going to offer any compensation for your customers?
We had a fare sale that was supposed to end today, but we’ve extended it by a week, just because we knew there would be access issues in trying to book travel. There’s also a massive effort underway to reach every customer individually impacted by a cancellation or delay today. Our CEO has written a note to these customers and the outreach includes gestures of goodwill such as a dollar value voucher and/or a code for 50 percent off a future booking. Every situation is different, so we are tailoring the communication.

When did you learn there was a problem and what was the first step you took?
Yesterday a little after 1 pm CT, we began getting a notice that various systems and applications were not working as they should. We have an escalation process if we have a potential problem.

We can convene on a conference call, we can also assemble in our headquarters’ emergency command center, which we did end up doing, and we can get all the right parties in our operation involved and engaged in what might be going on and what its impact might be on our operations, employees, and customers.

We were able to utilize some systems yesterday -- email was the first one to start working to get news out to our employees. As our systems came back, such as our intranet, we were able to get news out to keep our employees in the loop.

Your CEO went on CNBC seemingly to talk about Q2 earning yesterday. In the same interview, he took the time to address the crisis. How did that come about?
That was all previously scheduled for earnings day. Last night, once we had more of an understanding of what happened and what it was going to take to restore the system, we were able to tee up some talking points and information for him to use with the media. It was a bit of a perfect storm from a media relations perspective. Our CEO did a fantastic job. We really pride ourselves on the level of customer service we offer — it’s part of our distinctive brand— and we didn’t do that. First and foremost, we wanted our customers to understand we’re sorry. This isn’t the way we do business. And we have to make things right.

What are the aims of Southwest Community? What value did it present in communicating with your customers during this crisis?
It was [already] part of our social business strategy to deliver an online customer community. We knew, based on the other online conversations taking place on forums like FlyerTalk.com, that a community would be a welcome place for our customers to get and give information. At the same time, we were looking for a new platform to evolve our corporate blog.

The community allowed us one other place to be able to provide information, because it was not linked to the website, so it wasn’t affected by the technology outages. [It was] clearly not a sunshine, chamber of commerce way to start your platform, but we got a good sense of potential for demand, the potential for audience, and what interaction could look like in an operationally stressful time. The long-term goal is to see how we can offer more self-serve options and create that community engagement. And we think down the road, as it grows, [it could help a customer] avoid having to pick up a phone to call us, or search our website, or shoot us an email.

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