Southwest Airlines Crashes and Burns with Response to PR Crisis

By Jeremy Knauff Jeremy Knauff has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on October 12, 2021

Southwest Airlines’ tagline is “Low fares. Nothing to hide. That’s TransFarency!” But apparently “nothing to hide” doesn’t apply to everything in the business. 

As of Monday, the airline had canceled two nearly thousand flights, including more than 1,000 flights, a shocking 29% of its schedule, on Sunday alone. On Saturday, the airline canceled 808 flights and had 1,187 flights delayed.

The reason? 

According to representatives of the company, the weather was to blame. 

Except this “weather” didn’t show up on any news outlets, and equally miraculous was that it didn’t affect any other airlines. 

That’s because it didn’t exist.

It was an obvious lie told in an attempt to save face. 

Predictably, the company was promptly dragged on social media for its blundering attempt to spin the growing PR crisis. Comments criticizing Southwest piled up not only on its posts about the situation itself, but also on older, non-related posts as well. The consensus was overwhelmingly negative. But rather than admit what was really going on, company spokespeople chose to double down on the lie.

So what was the real reason for canceled flights?

Simply put, it was a pilot shortage. But it wasn’t that the airline did have enough pilots.

It was the fact that its pilots called out sick in protest of the company’s dictatorial vaccine mandates. And thousands of its pilots have taken to social media to say exactly that. 

But Southwest Airlines denies this. 

Much like their false claims about the weather being the culprit, the company representatives seem to believe that if they say something—anything—that the world will simply ignore the evidence they see and believe them instead.

Southwest’s approach is the exact opposite of how a PR crisis should be handled. And I suspect it will get worse as time goes on because desperate people do desperate things. 

My prediction is that soon, the airline will realize it can’t convince the public that some mystery weather conditions no one else can see are causing the cancellations, and will pivot to blaming the pilots.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. 

This move will further damage their reputation and trust. It will also cause more pilots to speak out, which will multiply the problem for Southwest. 

Based on its responses to the crisis so far, I predict the company will then attack the pilots by labeling them as “anti vaxxers” which would be an unfounded claim. It would also backfire on an epic scale. 

That’s because this isn’t about vaccines. Or even the COVID vaccine in particular. It’s about a company believing it has the right to force healthcare decisions on it’s employees.

Medically speaking, there are numerous reasons someone may not want this vaccine. Especially considering it’s only been in use for a short time, so there is no long-term data on its safety. And it doesn’t prevent the spread of the virus in the first place, so there is literally no logical justification to mandate it as a condition of employment. That’s why we’re seeing both unvaccinated and vaccinated employees alike pushing back on this.

Ultimately, the company has botched this crisis from the start and seems to keep making it worse at each step. If it continues down this path, it will destroy both company culture and public trust, which could result in a significant loss of market share over time. 

But maybe executives at Southwest Airlines will hire professionals to handle crisis PR for them, put emotions aside, and handle this properly. 

Only time will tell.

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By Jeremy Knauff Jeremy Knauff has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Jeremy Knauff ran a successful digital marketing agency for nearly two decades until a health crisis nearly killed him and destroyed his business.He then rebuilt from that devastating loss by developing a process that his agency now uses to help clients get featured in the media so they can become a recognized authority in their industry, attract more clients, and earn more money.Knauff is a speaker, author, founder of the PR firm, Spartan Media, and a Marine Corps veteran.

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