Southwest Airlines’ new listening center making an immediate mark

Are you a reporter seeking to spring a call on a Southwest PR pro? The airline might already know you’re coming and why you’re calling. And how about that New York Fashion Week?

Last November, Southwest Airlines Listening Center staffers were monitoring a screen displaying a social media word cloud when an alarming tweet went out in Los Angeles.

A passenger waiting to deplane from another airline tweeted that they were delayed because there was a gunman in LAX. Other tweets about a shooting began boiling up on Southwest’s word cloud screen.

The center called operational staff and spokespeople. “They didn’t know what we were talking about,” says Ashley Pettit, social business advisor at the airline.

Within 15 minutes they called back. The chatter was right. A gunman had shot dead a Transportation Security Administration employee and wounded others.

And so, the importance of Southwest’s Listening Center was proven almost as soon as it started, allowing the airline to notify staff, issue safety messages, and prepare press statements.

The center for the forward-looking airline officially opened this week after nearly a year of trial operations.

7 days a week

The center at the airline’s Dallas headquarters engages with employees and customers in real time 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Southwest calls it its “nerve center.” The integration of traditional media, social media, operational data, and even the intranet allows the airline to act quickly on insights.

“We know that we’re going to learn about an operational crisis first via social media,” Pettit says.

Southwest has long been known as a leader in social media monitoring, but the center is more than a social media bunker. By roping in a wide range of digital activity, it identifies situations as mundane as the guy who is unhappy about the Wi-Fi on a flight, to matters as urgent as the airport shooting.

The center’s mainstream media monitoring and can give PR a heads-up on breaking stories. And interestingly, it also ropes in what’s trending on its intranet, SWALife.

“It’s really about listening to all of our different audiences and using feedback to make smarter decisions to enhance the customer experience,” Pettit says. “With our employees, it’s about understanding what’s important to them.”

The Listening Center uses visualizations powered by Salesforce ExactTarget and Marketing Cloud’s Radian6, Command Center and Crowd Reactive. The technology enables Southwest to latch onto hot topics, influencers, trends, and consumer-generated media, the airline reports.

A multi-departmental approach

The center taps employees from communications, marketing, and customer relations.

It’s not just about responding to gripes and emergencies. Southwest mines for story ideas. If something’s trending on Facebook or Twitter, or a hot topic is going viral, brand managers start thinking. If there’s a way to weigh in that’s relevant to the mission, Southwest will offer its two cents.

During New York Fashion Week, the airline noticed all the chatter around models and runways. Hmmm. Southwest had some pretty big models out on its runways. Why not barge in on the skinny stiletto-wearers hashtag, #NYFW, with a little airplane joke?

Such tweets draw RTs, jokes, and (you’ll be shocked to learn) the occasional Twitter sneer.

The center also listens for feedback about products, such as Business Select or EarlyBird Check-In. The chatter, praise, and complaints are all passed on daily to the relevant departments in the company.

The staff has the authority to respond to a grumbling customer and make things right. The guy who gripes about slow Wi-Fi might get a free coupon next time he flies. The center can field comments from people snarling about flight delays or answer questions about how many bags you can check. A staffer may provide information to a parent confused about whether a kid can fly without an adult.

The Knee Defender

Monitoring the mainstream media has its advantages, too. This week, a story emerged about a gadget called Knee Defender, used by evil air travelers to prevent the seat in front of them from reclining.

“We had never heard of this until yesterday when the story broke,” Pettit said recently.

The gadget caused an in-flight squabble on a United Airlines flight, which had to land in Chicago on Aug. 24 en route from Newark, N.J., to Denver, Bloomberg reported. One friendly traveler installed a device that restricted seat of the passenger in front of him.

“Upset that her seat was locked, one traveler threw water at a man who employed a Knee Defender and refused to remove it at the request of a flight attendant,” Bloomberg stated, citing an AP report.

The Listening Center gave a heads-up to PR, which scrambled some talking points. Sure enough, reporters called, wanting to know whether Southwest had a policy on the Knee Defender.

“We see all this stuff bubbling up, typically on the social Web first,” Pettit says. “So we’re making sure that all our different stakeholders internally and externally know that something like that might be happening. We want to make sure that they get that information right away so that they can prepare.”


COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.