The airline had a major PR crisis on its hands last week when the Federal Aviation Administration issued it a $10.2 million fine, saying the carrier misled the agency about the inspection of planes for fuselage cracks. The airline, which has recorded 35 consecutive years of profitability, said the problem boiled down to a computer error and at no time was passenger safety compromised.
Choosing not to take the advice of its popular ads, the company dealt with the problem head on by speaking with the media; issuing a statement on its site; addressing the issue on its corporate blog; and letting CEO Gary Kelly, who called the fine unfair, play the role of punching bag during an in-studio interview on CNN, which is now available on Southwest's website. The company declined to speak with Ad Age about the fine.
Just how long this PR shiner will last remains to be seen. But there is some evidence the airline, a longtime media darling in a category full of dogs, has been running into some brand issues.
No ad review
Recent data collected by consultancy CoreBrand before the FAA issue surfaced showed a precipitous decline in Southwest's favorability rating, to 48.8 in 2007 from 66.6 in 2002. The airline, meanwhile, has begun a review for its all-important loyalty program, currently run by Omnicom Group's Targetbase. "We're well into the review," a Southwest spokeswoman said. She denied suggestions the airline is considering reviewing its main agency business at longtime agency GSD&M's Idea City, also part of Omnicom. "They are our advertising agency and we are not putting the business up for review," she said.
Southwest has been one of the only airlines to seemingly escape the ire and constant bashing of analysts, the media and consumers. Ironically, it's because of that good standing that this crisis could have some serious legs, according to Kent Jarrell, crisis-management and litigation specialist at Apco Worldwide.
"The story flips on them because there hasn't been a lot of criticism," Mr. Jarrell said. "That makes the story move even more among journalists because here's an airline with a good reputation considered to be the most successful in the field, and all of a sudden it has a problem that cuts to the core of what could be an Achilles heel for low-cost airlines: safety."
Engaging the blogosphere
Gene Grabowski, senior VP at Levick Strategic Communications, said Southwest needs to be paying attention to blogs because "that's where consumers are talking and where reporters are getting their ideas from." Mr. Grabowski recommends Southwest identify "high-authority" travel-related blogs and get into the conversations taking place there.
Some of the company's employees have been talking about the issue on its corporate blog. One consumer's response to its "We take safety seriously" post simply read: "I don't believe you."
Brand experts wonder if the airline, which has built its brand into one of America's largest based on a fun, lighthearted strategy, may need to take things more seriously. It's become known for its series of humorous TV spots, including one where a nosy guest checks out the contents of the host's bathroom cabinet, only to have its glass shelf crash and spill the contents in a loud crash.
"The idea of wanting to get away is a great idea, and they can empathize with their passengers and give them a chance of getting away when their passengers have made a mistake," said Karl Barnhart, managing director, CoreBrand. "But [Southwest] can't make a mistake and expect their passengers to give them a pass on it because you are dealing with people's lives." He also said Southwest may want to reconsider running the slapstick ads that suggest the people in them are getting injured.