SXSW 2010: The future of Corporate culture at Southwest Airlines

‘Our employees are our number 1 customers’. How many CEO’s are saying that about their employees? Many, right? But how many truly live up to those words? In a way that their workers will acknowledge that? “Southwest Airlines”, according to Mallory Messina, Culture Ambassador at Southwest. “In SWA, we do things just a little different. And you’ll notice that in the behavior of all 35,000 employees. Our culture is what distinguishes ourselves from our competitors. SWA trusts us and empowers us.” Openness, transparancy and authenticity are key. Even long before the raise of New Media. The founders of the company have always strived to cherrish and nurture the culture, no matter the number of employees. And most, if not all, says Mallory, feel comfortable in this culture. “We’re happy people, and happy people make happy passengers”. Their out of the ordinary ‘Safety Instructions’ is an example of that.

Mallory brings the story with a lot of passion. For some even a bit over the top (really, is that possible here in the US?), referring to LampaGJ’s tweet: Abandoned Southwest Airlines cheerleadering #beyondbbqs panel for “how not to be a douchebag at sxsw.” But it is effective, cause SWA does have enthusiastic and driven employees, who get rewarded for their efforts and dedication. The core of the culture: ‘A Servant Heart, a Warrior Spirit and a Fun-Luving Attitude’, combined with an Employees Recognition Program. And it seems to work. Not even for the people of SWA, but this dedication seems to also affect their passengers, referring to SWA’a blog, their Facebook page (over 720,000 fans) and their Twitter account (more than 1 million followers). Still, things can go wrong, as it did with Kevin Smith (click here for full story). SWA made an attempt to acknowledge mistakes and be transparent about their policies (here and here), but the event backfired and cost them a number of customers in addition to a lot of negative publicity.

Funny enough, only now SWA is starting to implement Social Media for their internal communications. Very soon they will launch swalife, an internal blog for employees. While many of these employees are already active with the external tools. And surprisingly, without any ‘corporate guidelines’.  “Why hide if people had a bad day at work? Because that still happens at Southwest Airlines”, aldus Mallory.

We had a short interview with Mallory after her talk where she elaborates further on the corporate culture at SWA.

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Listening is not enough…

‘What ever you do, they’ll talk about you anyway’, is a free translation of a Dutch saying. Still, you’d better know what is being said online about you and your products, services and brands. ‘It doesn’t hurt if I don’t know’ is another translated Dutch saying (anyone knows the English equivalents?). But harm can be done in the blink of an eye. So listening is important, but it doesn’t stop there.
Take Motrin, a painkiller in the USA, two years ago. Immediately after the publication of an ad on the Motrin website on a Saturday (it’s not available anymore, but here’s a description), people responded emotionally through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The majority of them were moms. Before the weekend was over it skyrocketed in the media. The ad agency nor Motrin were aware of the impact of the Social Media turmoil, but damage was already done.


BP’s current attitude towards the environmental catastrophe, which takes place in the Gulf of Mexico, is another example how it should not be handled. BP is mainly silent, doesn’t give a lot of information, and if it does, it’s manipulated. No surprise people have no confidence in how the crisis is handled and they simply don’t trust the company. Why did it take BP 5 weeks before it acknowledged that this is a major environmental catastrophe, where the rest of the world understood this shorty after the oil platform exploded and disappeared in the ocean? Illustrative is the invitation I received the other day from my brother in law to join the Facebook group ‘Boycot BP‘, currently with more that 277,000 fans, amongst them Bill Cosby. Not good for your brand.

Knowing what is being said online is important. Responding is the next. But understand how to respond. Not like Nestlé did recently to Greenpeace, which started an anti-Nestlé campaign referring to the use of palmoil for the production of Kitkat. Palmoil, bought by Nestlé from companies destroying the Indonesian rainforest in order to plant palm trees. Greenpeace made a video and published it on YouTube, which Nestlé enforced to take away from the platform, due to copyright infringement. Fuel for Greenpeace’s campaign unleashing their entire community to spread the word about Nestlé. What if Nestlé had responded less aggressive on this video, or even had ignored it?

Southwest Airlines is doing a better job, although still not perfect. Recently, Southwest refused to take an obese passenger onboard on a domestic flight in the USA. The man, Kevin Smith, a Hollywood director, responded with fury via his Twitter account and in no time the story spread all over the States and was picked up by the media. Southwest Airlines responded rapidly through their own blog (here and here), although not always with the right attitude, resulting in negative publicity. (click here for an earlier article on our blog on this subject).

So, again, listening is important but responding in the right way even more. Responding in such manner that your audience in it’s turn listens to you. ‘Be engaging’, says Brian Solis, a social media expert, whom I recently interviewed at SXSW 2010 in Austin, Texas. ‘In order to be engaging, you need to be believable. And you can only be believable if you’re empathetic towards your audience. Recently, Brian Solis gave an interesting webinar on this subject, organized by Strongmail. And it’s available online. It takes an hour, the audio-quality is moderate, but hey, wasn’t Content King. Enjoy, it’s more than worth it. And if you still want more? Try his book, Engage.

SXSW 2010: Congress of congresses

24 Hours and 3 flights later we’ve arrived in Austin, Texas. Where the tempereature has a comfortable 25 centigrades (77 F), the streets continously smell like BBQ with the sounds of countryrock. Austin, home to 50.000 students, center of modern technology and host of one of the largest events of music, film and interactive media: South by Southwest. An event like no other: with more than 10,000 participants larger than ever. We will make various video-reports in co-operation with Marketingfacts (one of the largest online marketingblogs in The Netherlands) covering SXSW interactive. Check our intro-video (but beware, it’s in Dutch):

SXSW is truly a huge festival: as said above, 10,000 participants atending over 350 sessions with more than 1,250 speakers. And don’t forget the numurous parties at night. Downside of this size of an event is that it’s hard to pick your session. Or a party. It’s almost too much! And you would love to be everywhere. Then again, it’s thrilling to be here. We hope to bring a bit of that feeling to you.

Up next is an interview (don’t worry, it’s in English) with Mallory Messina of Southwest Airlines about the future of Corporate Culture. Stay tuned.

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