Southwest Airlines: Changing the Way People Fly Through Public Relations Strategies
Pioneering not only the Airline Industry, but the PR field for the last 50 years
By: Rachel Gray
As a Rapid Rewards member, a lifelong customer, and a public relations professional, I admire Southwest Airlines as a company for many reasons. From its playful, interactive beverage napkins to its transparency both externally and internally, Southwest has built a reputation for excellent customer and employee care.
According to Rebecca Poynter, Instructor in JOUR 4460, public relations is the “positive, proactive strategic public relations actions by an organization which builds goodwill with audiences, support the brand and maintain a positive reputation." I believe Southwest displays exemplary, proactive communication and planning with its approach to public relations.
Southwest prides itself on authenticity, which is its strongest strategic public relations tool. According to an interview with Brooks Thomas, Social Business Advisor for Southwest Airlines, he explained the importance of “authentic stories, social media listening and fast action power” (Twiford, 2016). Thomas claims that authenticity is “vital for the brand’s communications, both internally and externally.”
Authenticity is the driving factor for many of Southwest’s PR campaigns as well as its online communication. Southwest’s social media strategy goals include:
Maintain the Southwest Airlines FUN-LUVing personality across all channels.
Create outstanding multimedia content and distribute it to everyone.
Raise awareness of new products and services.
Brand Journalism and Traditional Media
Southwest has introduced different brand journalism content that not only showcases the brand but also works to control the narrative and reputation of the public’s perception. In 2004, Southwest was the focus of a reality shows that detailed aspects of the company from the runway to the corporate office. After the show's run, in 2006 Southwest published its first company blog “Nuts about Southwest.” Like the show, it was launched as a “means of giving our customers a look inside Southwest's Culture and operations by allowing users to interact and build personal relationships with our Employees” (Twiford, 2016). In 2010, Southwest published its first employee blog which allowed employees to post and interact with customers directly. As Southwest celebrates its 50th anniversary, it plans to continue to focus on multimedia content including a new podcast series entitled “Is This Seat Taken?” that will share some of the best stories and moments from its history.
According to author Paul Furiga, Southwest possesses the power of the “Capital S Story.” Furiga (2021) claims that “Southwest’s storytelling focus demonstrates why every organization has at least one great story to share.” One unique storytelling opportunity that Southwest embraced was when a children’s book titled “Gumwrappers and Goggles” was published in 1982. This book told the story of T.J. LUV the jet, and it focused on the early years of Southwest. As a response to this book, Southwest “commissioned a musical based on the book called "Show Your Spirit," and sent it on a multi-city tour.” Southwest’s storytelling didn’t end there, in 2017 the airline launched the “Every seat is a story” campaign. Not only did this campaign contribute to Southwest’s purpose, “to connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel,” it also places an important spotlight on the group that Southwest relies on to be successful — the people.
Social Media Campaigns
Arguably, the most successful campaign that focuses on the people of Southwest was a product of its proactive approach to social media. In 2015, a video was uploaded to Facebook that featured a pilot waving back at a young boy as the plane was leaving the gate. This video went viral and eventually made it back to employees of Southwest. Southwest took this opportunity to tell a positive, uplifting story as it tracked down the young boy and his mom who posted the video. Southwest invited the boy to meet and tour an aircraft with the pilot from the video. This campaign was met with overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers, and it earned national media attention. Because this interaction occurred organically, it was perceived as genuine and authentic by the public. According to Twiford (2016), “This video is far more magical than anything a brand’s video team could have produced with a script and a cast of actors.”
Traditional, Tactical Public Relations
Southwest has also been able to utilize traditional public relations strategies to inform customers and learn more about their behaviors. Since 2004, Southwest has been working with SEO-PR to optimize their press releases reach for search engines. By identifying popular key search terms and including them in past and present press releases, as well as attaching URLs that link to further information or point of sales, Southwest has been able to bring value to an otherwise valueless tactile document. According to The Institute for Public Relations, as a result, “Southwest Airlines was able to generate an estimated $2.5 million in ticket sales using this method.”
Through the use of these different public relations practices, Southwest has been able to corner the Airline industry. By primarily focusing on listening both online and in-person, Southwest has adopted a proactive approach to PR. The use of its social media platforms to tell stories gives the brand a personable nature and allows the company to get ahead of negative stories because it has already established repour and transparency with the general public. The most important thing I learned from Southwest is maintaining the reputation of a company as big as Southwest Airlines takes dedication and a team that lives, breathes, and bleeds pride for their company. And at Southwest, you’re sure to find that.
About the Author
Rachel Gray is a new public relations professional in Denton, Texas. Rachel studied journalism with a focus on PR at the University of North Texas and is expected to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in December 2022.
Deatherage Green, S. (2004). CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Southwest Airlines keeps PR course with flying colors. PR Week. https://www.prweek.com/article/1246842/corporate-case-study-southwest-airlines-keeps-pr-course-flying-colors
Furiga, P. (2021). The corporate giant whose LUV for storytelling proves its power. Word Write. https://www.wordwriteagency.com/blog-2/the-corporate-giant-storytelling
Hillhouse, E. (2018). Come Fly with Me: The Art of Airline Public Relations. Platform Magazine. https://platformmagazine.org/2018/10/18/come-fly-with-me-the-art-of-airline-public-relations/
Marszalek, D. (2020). Southwest Airlines Reviewing Agency Relationships. PRovoke Media. https://www.provokemedia.com/latest/article/southwest-airlines-reviewing-agency-relationships
McNeill, C. (n.d.). SOUTHWEST AIRLINES NUTS ABOUT ONLINE COMMUNICATION. PR News Online. https://www.prnewsonline.com/Assets/File/ChristiMcNeill.pdf
The Institute for Public Relation Authors. (n.d.). Golden Ruler Award for Excellence in Public Relations Measurement “You Are Now Free To Link PR and Sales.” The Institute for Public Relations. https://instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/SWA_GoldenRuler.pdf
Twiford, K. (2016). How Southwest Airlines Fuels Brand Journalism with Social Media Listening and Quick Turn Video. PhotoShelter. https://stories.photoshelter.com/travel-brand-fuels-communications-with-visual-content/