COVID-19 Crisis Communications: Lessons from Southwest

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    Southwest Airlines: Lessons in COVID-19 Crisis Communications

    Right now our Bernstein Crisis Management team is working with clients across the country to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19 concerns impacting both operations and customer trust. One of the most widespread fears is that of using public transportation, particularly air travel, which is why we thought Southwest Airlines engaging in a crisis communications campaign to highlight improved measures meant to keep surfaces sanitary was a great example for others to follow. First, Southwest sent the below email to its entire customer mailing list:

    This is a great start, but there’s only so much you can say or show in an email, right? The Southwest crisis management team was no doubt aware of this, and by clicking on the link in the email you arrived at the official Southwest blog, where anyone with fears could see an in-depth explanation of the 6+ hour cleaning process, high-images, and even video of the enhanced cleaning measures at work:

    With a brand as big as Southwest and the media hungry for any news related to COVID-19, the story was quickly picked up by mainstream news outlets, giving the brand’s communication even greater reach. This is smart, modern crisis management at work.

    What should we be doing?

    While there’s not much any one business can do to make the virus go away (unless you’re in biotech perhaps!) it’s important to consider how you’ll need to alter operations, and how you’ll communicate with your own customers and employees, if concerns about this coronavirus continue to climb. Think to yourself – or better yet have a group exercise with your executive team – and consider questions like these:

    • How will concerns over things like public spaces impact us?
    • Will customers feel comfortable walking in to do business?
    • How do we let staff, customers, and business partners know we’re safe?
    • What policies need to change ASAP to adapt to the situation?
    • Are we doing what we can to prevent customer-staff or staff-staff transmission?
    • How do we continue operations if a large portion of our workforce can’t physically come to work?
    • What are our criteria for more serious measures like travel bans or even temporarily closing storefronts?

    The bottom line is this – if you haven’t given serious discussion time to these types of questions you’re behind the curve already. Now is not the time to engage in, “It won’t happen to us” thinking. Get proactive, engage in the crisis management process, and prepare your business for impact.

    [Erik Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy.]

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    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management