'Communicating in a fog of war': How Southwest Airlines is responding to a passenger death

The airline's comms head, Linda Rutherford, described the airline's crisis response.

Southwest Airlines communications head Linda Rutherford said her team has been working through a "fog of war" since learning of flight 1380’s engine failure, which led to the death of one passenger and injuries to others on Tuesday.

The plane, en route from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Love Field in Dallas, made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport after the disintegrating engine created shrapnel that punctured an airplane window. The passenger who died was Jennifer Riordan, VP of community relations at Wells Fargo, who was based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Rutherford said Southwest Airlines’ top priority is doing what it can to support Riordan’s family.

"There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of things happening at once, so it is very much that fog of war in the initial moments," said Rutherford, Southwest’s SVP and chief communications officer.

Rutherford said PR agencies have offered advice, which she is taking into consideration, but added that the company is following a crisis plan with hundreds of people involved in the corporate response. She declined to say what firms are supporting the airline's crisis response.

"[Airline employees] look to comms for what to say, but these people know what to do to help the various investigative agencies, taking care of customers and employees, addressing concerns coming up, and being available to our community," she explained. "This is a solid group team effort."

Rutherford said Southwest’s comms strategy has two pillars: compassion and action. The airline wants to be transparent and communicative and "compassionate to the dynamics of a situation," she explained.

Tactically, the company been communicating internally with staffers; CEO Gary Kelly shot a video that was shared internally and externally on Tuesday afternoon and held a news conference.

The airline has been communicating with its flight attendants to make sure they strike the appropriate tone in preflight public safety announcements.

"Our flight attendants are famous for their brand of service, which includes singing a song or telling a joke or having a laugh," explained Rutherford.

Southwest has also used its social platforms to share statements and updates.

The airline has also deployed alternative branding for the first time.

"On our website, mobile app, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages, our branding has been shifted to monochromatic," said Rutherford. "We devised this several months ago and did not have to put it into action until [Tuesday], but it is meant to be a show of respect for the death that occurred."

The airline’s customer relations team has also been working to ease the fears of the public on social media, in email, and over the phone.

"A number of fear-of-flying-type calls and emails are coming in. so we are wanting to take good care of customers who have booked upcoming travel and want assurances we are doing everything we can in response to the accident," said Rutherford.

Tickets are nonrefundable, she noted. However, customers who have booked flights can reschedule their trips for any time over the next 12 months with no penalty. That policy was in place at Southwest prior to this week.

Southwest has also reached out to its charity partners across the country.

"We are expressing sympathies and telling them what we are focused on, which is to cooperate with NTSB and take care of [Riordan’s] family," she said. "If we have any active publicity or sponsorship collateral, we are asking to temporarily pause that."

Southwest’s governmental affairs teams are also conducting outreach at local, state, and federal levels. The airline communications team also communicated on Wednesday about how the carrier has accelerrated its engine inspection timeline.

"We don’t know cause at this point and we are cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board and they will determine the cause," said Rutherford. "We expect minimal disruption to any of our operating schedules."

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