Last Thursday, Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 skidded off the runway at Chicago Midway Airport and onto Central and 55th Avenue, killing a 6-year-old boy. The death is a real tragedy and represents a crisis for the airline, one that could significantly damage their reputation if not handled correctly.
I was aware of the accident that night, but didn't spend much time reading about it until Sunday, when I opened the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Page 3 of the Business Section had two articles about the crash, which wasn't surprising, but what was especially interesting was their content. The headline of the first story read "Fatal crash a Southwest First" and the subhead was "For past 35 years, airline has been one of the safest." The first two paragraphs of the story were about the accident, but it wasn't discussed again until after seven full paragraphs about their exemplary safety record.
The second article was titled "CEO leads quick response to accident." The opening paragraph read: Even though Thursday's incident at Midway Airport marked Southwest Airlines' first fatal accident in its 35-year history, the company offered a coordinated, polished response.
It was that response that led to the two stories in my newspaper, which, even though they were about a tragedy that involved the company, were largely positive in their tone. They clearly benefited from their reputation prior to the accident, but they were also helped by a response that did all the right things:
- The first confirmation was quick
- They promised cooperation with the NTSB and the FAA
- They set up a toll-free number for family and friends of the passengers
- The CEO expressed condolences for the accident
- They promised to release further information as it became available
They also didn't ignore the Internet. In a Google search for Southwest Airlines, the company comes up #1 with this link: Information about Southwest Airlines Flight 1248. A link from the home page takes visitors to a list of the company's press releases on the incident, the first of which was released on PR Newswire less than four hours after it happened.
Indeed, the company is receiving praise for their response from crisis communications managers. All this came despite not having a single death in their previous 35 year history. Sometime over that 35 years, Southwest was faced with a choice: do we want to prepare for the worst-case scenario before it happens or react once it does? They chose the former and the benefit to their reputation will be immeasurable.