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The latest PR fiasco for Southwest was noteworthy for its timing. During roughly the same time period, I saw two widely divergent depictions of the airline. By coincidence more than otherwise, I witnessed several examples of SWA being positioned as a legend in the PR industry – savvy, successful and carrying a boatload of wisdom and kudos. One trade group was even positioning them as a savant in the area of social media (for what achivement it wasn’t clear.) A number of conference briefs on my desk featured SWA presentations on topics ranging from their unique, “fun” culture to their mastery of media relation metrics. And this trend has been going on for years. It’s rare you attend a conference where SWA isn’t featured as a bright light in employee engagement, media relations, marketing or even lobbying.

But this laudatory, almost obsequious stream of industry hype was in sharp contrast to what was actually happening in real life. Not content to demonstrate its reactionary, outrageous tendency to ban passengers showing a little skin (at least three times in the past year by my count), Southwest has now really stepped into the mud with reports that it ignored safety guidlines and flew planes it had not properly inspected (it was subsequently confirmed 6 of the planes had cracks in the fuselage.)

How did SWA’s incredible, leading-edge PR machine respond to these claims? At first, their website and blog (which to me is little more than a light-weight, heavily perfumed platform for their marketing machine) made no mention at all. Never happened. I suppose there was no room with all the employee profiles, leadership pep talks and self-congratulatory features. In the face of the media onslaught over the weekend, SWA belatedly and reluctantly came out with a mix of denials, clarifications and excuses – including blaming the FAA. As the weekend progressed they decided to parade CEO Gary Kelly, who said he would vigorously defend his company’s commitment to safety and that the $10 million fine levied against the airline “felt unfair.”

There are two lessons one can draw from this sorry episode. One is how not to respond to a media crisis…but I’ll leave that to another time. But the more interesting one, to my mind, is how the PR industry tends to operate in a dangerous vacuum. Southwest was never as smart or progressive as they were positioned by an industry only too happy to have a super star at the ready. Industry events and awards have always flirted with irrelevance and a sense of detachment from the business world, but now they risk losing their credibility altogether. Now we’ll have to see what they present at their next conference keynote: How to leverage social media in a crisis, perhaps?