Southwest CEO Demonstrates Leadership in Crisis Communication

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Engine failure at 30,000 feet forced the emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines jet on Tuesday, leading to the death of one passenger and injuries to seven others. The fatality was the first aboard a U.S. flight since 2009, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

There are many stories that will emerge from this catastrophic failure: the fact that the aircraft landed safely after such a failure prime among them; the heroic efforts of pilot, passengers and crew, both in-air and those crew on the ground; the deeply sad loss of a life.

We will learn the “why” of it as new details are shared and investigations move forward: NTSB investigators are reported to have stated that an engine’s fan blades broke off from the hub during the flight. The broken edge of the blade showed crack lines consistent with “metal fatigue,” according to the NTSB.

“We are deeply saddened to confirm that there is one fatality resulting from this accident,” Southwest’s statement said. “The entire Southwest Airlines Family is devastated and extends its deepest, heartfelt sympathy to the Customers, employees, family members and loved ones affected by this tragic event. We have activated our emergency response team and are deploying every resource to support those affected by this tragedy.”

Interest yesterday also focused upon Southwest CEO Gary Kelly and his remarks to those affected by the event

In a 2015 article, CEO Kelly said:

“Leadership is about people. Period. Great leadership is about inspiring people, serving people, caring for people, and caring about people. You have to tell them you care.”

That is exactly what Mr. Kelly did on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. He led. He showed compassion, he educated, he showed faith in his teams and his company. In his comments, Mr. Kelly expressed confidence in the company’s fleet of 737s after the incident. “The airplane in my opinion is proven. It’s very reliable,” he said in his remarks. “It has the greatest success of any aircraft type over a long, long period of time. It doesn’t create any doubt in my mind, at least at this point.”

He communicated with competency, character and courage during a highly stressful, highly scrutinized event.

He explained that care must be taken during investigation and information gathering stages. He reinforced that the NTSB was in charge and that Southwest would respect and support the NTSB protocol.

He was practiced, he did not “wing-it.” He had answers.

4 Essentials

CEO Kelly exemplified the 4 Essentials of Crisis Communication.

Proper communications establishes public confidence in the ability of an organization to deal with a crisis and to bring about a satisfactory conclusion. Effective media communication is also integral to the larger process of information exchange aimed at eliciting trust and promoting understanding of the relevant issues or actions. Excellence in media communication aids such efforts in four essential ways:

  1. Building, maintaining or restoring trust
  2. Improving knowledge and understanding
  3. Guiding and encouraging appropriate attitudes, decisions, actions and behaviors
  4. Encouraging collaboration and cooperation

While we have seen many failures in crisis communication over the years, it is critically important that we highlight those who excel in this area. Take some time to review the video and then take an objective look at yourself and/or your organization’s chosen spokesperson.

How would you measure up under this same pressure? Compare the above to this example and let us know what you think. Call us if you need guidance or training.

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