Flying High with Communication Degrees

CCPA grads at Southwest Airlines share advice with current students

Brie Strickland came home one night to find her roommate engrossed in an unusual book. Liz Blumberg, social media and communications pro, was hunkered down on the couch with a pilot’s manual.

Blumberg wanted to learn pilot language to better represent pilots in her capacity as a flight operations engagement specialist for Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest domestic air carrier. It was just second nature.

“It was ingrained in me during my days at SMU to keep learning,” she says. “As a communications professional, you’re going to be called to the table to communicate on behalf of different groups, and you might not even be a member of that group. In my case, I’m not a Boeing 737 pilot, and sometimes the jargon might go over my head. But it’s about creating those relationships, building that trust, and exposing yourself to new information that can make a big difference.”

Working in the corporate world is not going to be a walk in the park, she advises. “You have to earn that seat at the table. The more I work to understand the pilots, the better I can represent them.”

Strickland and Blumberg, both 2014 communication alums from Meadows School of the Arts, say SMU’s communication and public relations program prepared them well for their positions in social media, constituent relations and marketing at Southwest.

“We remember what CCPA Department Chair Dr. Sandra Duhé taught us,” says Strickland, who holds the position of associate manager, influencer and music marketing in Southwest’s marketing department. “She would say, ‘If you want a seat at the table as a communicator, you don’t need a CPA or maybe even an MBA, but you do need to know the language.’”

Below, the alums – both of whom have had numerous promotions at Southwest – reflect on their SMU Meadows training and share advice gained both during and after their time as SMU Meadows students.

Social media

Think organic.

Good social media leverages employees’ and customers’ enthusiasm for your brand, says Strickland.

“What we are finding at Southwest is that the most engaging posts are often not the overly branded, overly polished content,” she says. “A lot of times it’s that really organic, word-of-mouth customer or employee content. For example, about 90 percent of what we put on our Instagram isn’t done by our professional photographers, it’s done by our employees and our customers.

“That organic feel drives brand loyalty, with the reader knowing that we are not just churning out content to sell a product. We are diving into loyalty. We want you to be part of our brand, we want you to be part of our content story. That’s where the stories start, with the people.

Listen, then interact.

The alums emphasize the importance of listening in a world that is very noisy on social media. Hear your customers, they say, then turn those insights into action.

“If the customer is posting to us or to their friends that their flight is delayed, too hot, too cold, if they have a question about why a flight is delayed or where a flight is coming from—we have the tools as a company and as a social media team to get that information to them,” says Strickland.

What helps Southwest react in a timely way is the emphasis on the importance of social listening. Employees stationed in both the airline’s Listening Center and Network Operation Control Center can see and respond to real-time social media conversation, and from their vantage point, alert the pertinent Southwest department to quickly solve a potential problem. Both alums worked in these centers during their careers and emphasize the importance of proactive and reactive listening in today’s fast-paced communications environment.

Crisis management

Case studies at SMU Meadows translate into real-world preparation.

The alums recall a particular course that still resonates with them. “When I think about a class that was super-engaging and had a lot of real-world examples that we worked through, it’s that Crisis Communication class taught by Dr. Duhé,” says Strickland. “Something important to realize is that no matter what industry you are in, you’re going to have your own fire drill. In the airline industry we battle technology, human nature, Mother Nature—you name it, we battle it on a daily and hourly basis. Liz and I both have done our share of crisis management for the airline.”

Blumberg says crisis management can be daunting, especially to someone new to the corporate world. But with the help of her preparation at Meadows, she quickly figured out how to respond.

“When you realize everything you did in that class wasn’t just out of a textbook, but transitions to real life and a real corporate setting seamlessly, that is very satisfying,” she says. “If you’ve taken that class and you have that reassurance, when everything hits the fan, it’s not surprising or discouraging. You’re able to jump right in.”

Own your mistakes.

“Learning to own a mistake was a big takeaway from my days at Meadows,” says Strickland. “And Southwest has a very similar stance: When we do something wrong, we are here to own it, we’re here to make it right, and we’re not afraid to apologize and be empathetic. It’s great to see that textbook philosophy carry over into real life.

“Learning that sense of integrity, that building a level of calmness within students is important.”

Premium internships and opportunities at SMU

Hint: Don’t wait till senior year.

Blumberg had her first internship during her first year as social media manager for SMU’s Hegi Career Center.

“How many other schools can you say that as a first year, you’re already getting real world social media exposure right off the bat?

“The clock starts ticking the moment you step onto campus,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you need an internship all four years. But what I always brag on about SMU is that there are opportunities to get involved everywhere you look. Whether that’s campus organizations, jobs, or internships, there’s always something around the corner that will help you get more experience and strengthen your résumé.

“Sometimes it can be easy for a student to just step back and say, ‘Oh, I’ll deal with that when I’m a senior.’ I recommend students look for ways to get involved and deepen their knowledge as soon as they can. Take advantage of the opportunities at SMU.”

Tip: Both alums want current students to know that Southwest is always looking for good interns. SMU students, say the alums, have a good reputation at Southwest.

SMU Communication Studies Degree
Brie Strickland, left, with fellow 2014 alumna Liz Blumberg, in the Southwest Airlines Listening Center.

Little events can turn into big things.

“I actually got my first internship because I went to a lecture on campus,” says Strickland. “It was a Communication Studies lecture featuring Fred Cook, CEO and president of Golin. There were about 45 people there. I raised my hand and asked a question. He pulled me aside after the lecture, thanked me for my awesome question, and immediately introduced me to the director of their Dallas office. I asked one question and got my résumé in front of the director of Golin.

“Bottom line: Don’t take small experiences for granted. They can be big opportunities.”

Seek mentorships

Get to know your professors. They want to know you and help you.

Your professors not only know your name at Meadows, says Strickland, they really do want to get to know you and help you. She gives an example of this brand of first-name-basis connection:

“I recently emailed Dr. Duhé to let her know my little sister just got accepted to SMU and is interested in communications. The fact that I can email the head of the department and say ‘Hey, my little sister just got accepted, she wants to know more about the current program and what’s happening’ and within 20 minutes she emails me back and says, ‘How can I help? Let’s get her to sit in on some classes,’ you just don’t get that at every university.

“It’s a small world at SMU, and it’s full of good people. Keep these people close.”

Remember to market yourself

Both Blumberg and Strickland urge students to actively market themselves.

“Take the time to put together your best pieces of work,” says Strickland. “Reach out to your professors and get their feedback on what they think your best pieces are. If you want to really go to the next level, create a professional website. If you don’t want to build a whole website, at least upload your work to LinkedIn.”

“LinkedIn is huge,” says Blumberg. “You might think it’s not a big deal to have written a press release during an internship or class. But when I interviewed at Southwest, I came in equipped with pieces I had written for classes and internships. Additionally, recruiters and hiring managers check LinkedIn, so having your work on your LinkedIn page can be a difference-maker, too.

“Be a PR person for yourself. Because if you won’t, no one else will.”

Read more:

SMU Meadows Division of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs (CCPA)

CCPA blog

Southwest Airlines “Campus Reach” Internships

Liz Blumberg LinkedIn

Brie Strickland LinkedIn

Photos by Grace Guthrie.

Meet Liz and Brie.

Liz Blumberg, left, and Brie Strickland.

Both Meadows alums work at Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas and fly all over the country for their jobs. Each held internships with Southwest during or immediately after their senior year at SMU and began working for Southwest shortly after earning their communication studies degrees in 2014. Experts at public relations and social media, both have enjoyed a steady progression of promotions at Southwest. 

Liz Blumberg ’14 earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies, with a minor in sports management. While a student at SMU, she was involved with SMU PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America), Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, the SMU Undergraduate Admissions Tour Guide and Ambassador Program, Relay for Life of SMU, Student Foundation, the University Honors Program, and the Mustang Corral Orientation Program. Liz has held four positions at Southwest in Operational Communications, Social Media Care, Executive Office Customer Relations, and Media Relations, as well as two internships in summer 2013 and summer 2014. Her current title is Flight Operations Engagement Specialist, in which she supports communication and engagement efforts for over 9,000 Southwest pilots nationwide.

Brie Strickland ’14 earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in communication studies and public relations & strategic communication, with a minor in anthropology. While a student at SMU, she was involved with the Nancy Ann and Ray L. Hunt Leadership Scholars Program, SMU PRSSA, Chi Omega Sorority, the SMU Undergraduate Admissions Tour Guide and Ambassador Program, the Mustang Corral Orientation Program, Student Foundation, the University Honors Program, and Mustang 11. Brie has held two positions at Southwest in Social Business and Marketing, as well as an internship in spring 2014. Her current title is Associate Manager, Influencer and Music Marketing, in which she spearheads innovative, impactful approaches to partnering with social influencers and musicians across the country.