I loved Southwest Airlines.  Until now.  This once trusted brand has shaken my confidence and that of so many others.   For the thousands of people who missed holiday gatherings, never got to their destinations and still don’t have the luggage that flew without them, there is anger and frustration that will probably make them think twice before booking again. 

When a trusted brand lets so many people down, the costs to reputation and to repair the damage are high. The terrible winter storms that wreaked so much havoc were only partly to blame for the troubles. What the bad weather uncovered was the fact that the company had outgrown its scheduling and other systems, something pilots and other staff had been warning about for years.  It reminds me of the beautiful live oak trees in New Orleans that looked so healthy on the outside but toppled during Hurricane Katrina because inside they had been hollowed out. 

Businesses and nonprofits alike would be wise to learn from Southwest’s mistakes. 

  • Pay attention to the internal health of your company

This is not sexy nor does it score points on Wall Street but investing in systems, updating policies and procedures, and training are essential for the health of any enterprise.  If you kick that can down the road, eventually it’s going to hit you in the face. Just as important is to solicit and actively listen to the feedback and challenges your teams on the front line are facing. 

  • Apologize And Demonstrate What You Will do to Make it Right

When something has gone wrong, apologize to your customers and other stakeholders for the inconvenience, loss or frustration they are experiencing.  Be empathetic to their situation.  But an apology without corrective action is meaningless.  Communicate what you are going to do to make it right but be careful not to promise things you can’t deliver.  You will only compound the situation.  And then, do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. 

  • Get ahead of the situation. 

Respond quickly to the situation and don’t wait for others to own the narrative.  No one likes to acknowledge that there is a problem or that they have made an error.  But your customers will have no problem taking to social media or reaching out to reporters to tell the world about your failings..  Use your own social channels and the traditional media to get your messages out.  Even if you haven’t gotten all your plans together, acknowledge that there is an issue, apologize for the challenges people are facing as a result and that you are working on solutions. 

  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. 

One of the big frustrations from the Southwest situation was that people couldn’t get through to staff to get help or even basic information.  Make sure you have the ability to communicate with your team and external audiences. Use your company’s website, intranet, and social channels to provide updates.  Get your executives out talking to the media. And remember that internal communication is just as important as external. Don’t be invisible.  Nature abhors a vacuum. 

  • Preparation is the Best Protection

The best way to manage a crisis is to prepare for bad times when things are calm. At some point in the life of every enterprise, something goes wrong.  Make sure you have the people and other resources ready to mobilize quickly.  Identify and train a crisis management team.  Imagine various scenarios and practice how you would manage them.  While no crisis follows a textbook, creating muscle memory within your organization for dealing with the unexpected will help you through it.  And remember, sometimes the people who would lead this crisis team might be the crisis themselves so make sure there is redundancy on the team. 

If Southwest does what it has promised to do and makes the investments in itself, it will recover and restore trust.  One thing Southwest has going for it is the goodwill it has engendered over its decades of serving the flying public.  It takes years to build a brand and sometimes just minutes to destroy or erode it.  

Is your company ready for the unexpected?