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Why Southwest Went Silent During a Meltdown: It Didn't Want to Make Things Worse

Southwest's (LUV) unusually muted communications during a computer meltdown this week has gotten a lot of attention, but until now the airline hasn't bothered to explain itself. I spoke with Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz to understand why the airline was so quiet. The answer? They didn't want to spark a panic.

No, really. Talk about a major misunderstanding of how social media works.

Southwest relaunched its frequent flier program on March 1, and its problems began almost immediately. People couldn't log in to parts of the site, flights couldn't be changed, and so forth. The result was jammed phone-support lines and a lot of angry customers who tried to reach Southwest any way they could. When an unrelated computer failure in the afternoon caused flights to back up, things got even worse. But Southwest still maintained radio silence.

Believe it or not, Southwest's decision to remain quiet was a strategic move. Mainz told me that the team figured that if they started talking about the problems, that just make them worse:

We didn't want to proactively drive a lot of traffic to the website when it wasn't already performing properly. We didn't want to drive more calls to the call center. We felt that would drive more frustration.
The thinking apparently was that if they talked about it, then people would instantly go to check out the problem and the servers would become even more overloaded. There's only one problem with that rationale. With social media today, word still spreads very quickly whether you're talking or not. So you'd better be talking.

Death by Facebook
Facebook, Twitter, frequent flier communities, and more were flooded with complaints about the site not working. And then when flights were delayed, it only made things worse. There were plenty of discussions happening and that was without question pushing people to visit the site and call the airline anyway. The main problem? Southwest wasn't a part of the conversation.

It also didn't explain why Southwest hadn't put any update about the problems on the website itself. If people are already on the website, then posting information there isn't going to drive more traffic. That traffic is already there, and it's probably already (collectively) frustrated. I posed that question to Mainz.

I don't know how difficult it would have been to put up a proactive message on [Southwest].com to say we're experience some issues. That's not something that the communications team would necessarily drive, but we would have influence there.
It seems to me that it's absolutely something the communications team should drive. Mainz said the airline has the ability to put up alerts, as it does when there are weather problems, but apparently this wasn't deemed important enough by whomever is in charge.

Instead, what we got was a blog post the following day explaining what had happened and then a FAQ around some of the most common problems.

In the end, while the airline is actively apologizing for the meltdown, it's not apologizing for how it handled the situation from a communications perspective. Would the team have done anything differently? Just a little.

In hindsight, the only thing I would proactively have changed... I don't know about the website but that's something we could certainly consider... then of course would have come out quicker with the blog post. It would have been on [the following day] but it's iffy just how much quicker we could have been.
It's surprising to me that Southwest thinks that the communication strategy worked well enough that only minor tweaks were necessary. There were a lot of angry people out there. While the communications team may not have been able to fix any problems, they could have been out there publicly talking as much as they could. Just knowing that someone is listening can go a long way for an angry traveler.

Instead, Southwest decided it would be better to keep quiet. News flash: That doesn't work anymore. It especially doesn't work for an airline like Southwest that has led the effort to improve communication through social media. The bar is higher for Southwest than for most airlines. That's both good and bad, but it's just the way it is.

With nearly everyone using some form of social media, word spreads quickly around problems like these. Southwest can either participate in the conversation or not, but it can't prevent it from happening. The right choice is to participate as much as possible, but clearly Southwest disagrees with me on this one.

What's your take?

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Photo via Flickr user Ack Ook/CC 2.0
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