Southwest Airlines Takes Us Behind the Scenes of a Major Crisis Response

May 2023
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I spoke with Linda Rutherford, chief administrative and communications officer at Southwest Airlines, for our annual crisis issue. 

We had a lengthy conversation about the airline’s crisis response during the operational disruption caused by Winter Storm Elliott in December. Rutherford explained that the company’s initial focus was on communicating good information to employees and providing options for customers who experienced delays or cancellations. 

“We didn’t want to miscommunicate, and we didn’t want to talk too quickly about some of the solutions we were going to try and deploy. Because if they didn’t work, it would further erode our credibility,” said Rutherford, who joined Southwest in 1992. “The challenge for us was being patient while also trying to explain to our employees what we were doing, because we were moving them around the network, to try to catch them back up to aircraft.”

Overall, Rutherford emphasized the importance of compassion, understanding and action in crisis response, and acknowledged the challenges of managing communication in a fast-paced and emotionally charged environment.

You can turn here for the interview.

And we’ll hear more from Rutherford on May 24, as she will be my guest on the next Strategies & Tactics Live. Tune in at 1 p.m. ET on LinkedIn.

You can find the S&T Live archives on the PRSA LinkedIn page (under Events). More than 22,000 viewers have tuned into the first 15 episodes with guests including Michelle Sing, head of communications and philanthropy at JCPenney; Mary Osako, vice chancellor for strategic communications at UCLA; and Ken Melton, communications strategist, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Finding your focus

I also recently had the opportunity to talk with Pete Souza, the former chief official White House photographer for President Obama.

Souza, a luncheon keynote speaker at PRSA’s Travel and Tourism Conference on June 20-23, is known for capturing iconic images of the Obama presidency, including the photo of the president and his national security team in the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011. 

In Q&A ahead of the conference, Souza shared that he was drawn to still photography from a young age and captivated by how photographs told the story of what was happening in the world. 

He also offered advice for communicators on storytelling and how images help drive a narrative.

“People can recognize an authentic photograph from a staged one. I would encourage PR professionals to try to produce photographs that are natural and candid and spontaneous — even if they’re trying to promote a brand — as opposed to staging things,” he said. (That means he’s not a fan of ribbon-cutting ceremonies or check presentations!)  

On a personal note, I was pleased to learn that Souza, who worked for the Chicago Tribune’s Washington, D.C., bureau in the 1990s, knew my uncle, Glen Elsasser. 

My uncle, who passed away in 2011, was at the Tribune for decades, covering the Nixon White House, the Watergate trial and the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Souza, influenced by seeing iconic photos in newspapers while growing up, I was captivated by the headline-generating events my Uncle Glen was covering, which inspired me to pursue journalism as a career. 

You can read my full conversation with Souza on the blog at PRsay.

Return to Current Issue Crisis Management | May 2023
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