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Following Southwest Airlines' Linda Rutherford: @SWAFollower

Vice President of Communications and Strategic Outreach Discusses Role of Social Media in Effective Crisis Management

By Creighton Holley (B.A. '12)

Southwest Airlines’ vice president of communications and strategic outreach, Linda Rutherford, spoke to SMU’s Public Relations Student Society of America chapter on April 20, 2010. PRSSA members and other SMU students gathered to hear the presentation about Southwest’s crisis management.

Rutherford stressed the impact of social media in effective crisis management. With the advent and increasing use of media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, Rutherford said developing and executing a crisis management campaign has become a much faster and transparent process.

In the “old days,” which Rutherford joked were only a few months ago, releasing a statement about a crisis within two hours was considered reasonable. That has all changed now.

In July 2009, Southwest ordered an emergency landing of a 737 after a football-sized hole opened in the passenger cabin of the plane. The first thing the world witnessed of the incident was a Twitpic of the hole, posted by a passenger on the plane. Only seconds after the incident, the word was out.

“Hours in the cyber-world seem like days in the real world,” said Rutherford. She explained that the crisis team worked quickly to communicate with its stakeholders, including using Twitter -- the same outlet where the incident was first cited.

Rutherford noted that social media attention is not a bad thing. Several passengers aboard the flight were Tweeting and posting praises of the Southwest Airlines flight staff in handling the problem while in flight. She equated this to the new-age equivalent of positive word-of-mouth publicity.

In addition to the Twitter and Facebook accounts, Southwest Airlines also has a YouTube channel, company blog and Web site.

While the YouTube channel has been used in situations such as the “Too Pretty to Fly” incident, it has also been “used to enhance our company’s culture,” said Rutherford.

“Employees are always ‘on air,’ ” said Rutherford. Videos of Southwest employees are constantly being uploaded to the Internet, and it is vital that employees maintain a consistent company image.

Rutherford acknowledged that it is a daunting task to keep up with the rapidly changing communication tools, but added that it is important to communicate with customers in the venues that customers prefer to use.
Caroline Boothe, a first-year student who attended the lecture, said, “She gave an engaging speech that made me realize that social media networking is more than just connecting with friends and Facebook stalking. It's about building and maintaining relationships.”

SMU’s PRSSA chapter is housed in the Corporate Communications & Public Affairs Division of the Meadows School of the Arts, but is open to all SMU students. The chapter offers professional development activities for students interested in communication careers. There are 300 PRSSA chapters at universities across the country supported by 110 professional PRSA chapters.

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