SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CCO, & SVP Linda Rutherford [Episode 22]
Linda Rutherford began her career at Southwest Airlines in 1992. In the subsequent 28 years, Linda has been a pivotal part of the development of the brand’s communications function, ultimately culminating into the role of Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer.
In addition to leading the communications function, Linda’s role entails a focus on all things media relations, internal communications, community outreach, culture services, and change leadership. Linda has been named one of the 36 Women Champions of PR by PRWeek, was inducted into the PR News Measurement Hall of Fame, was the recipient of the Margaret Bush Wilson Lifetime Achievement Award by the St. Louis NAACP. Linda was also named a Top Executive in Diversity by Black Enterprise magazine and most recently was a recipient of a PR Week Purpose Award.
We really enjoyed this wide-ranging conversation about Southwest’s dedication to its purpose, the importance of social listening during a volatile time, and some of the most poignant leadership lessons learned from female executive mentors. All of this and so much more on today’s episode of Damn Good Brands.
Here are some key takeaways from this conversation with Linda:
Define your culture through your origin story. Southwest Airlines’ culture is described as having "a servant’s heart complemented by a warrior’s spirit and a ‘fun-loving’ attitude." The warrior part of this ethos is an homage to the original staff of Southwest who had to face insurmountable odds in order for the fledgling company to survive in the very cutthroat airline industry as competitors tried to squash them. The warrior ethic of early Southwest employees has been kept alive to this day and is especially meaningful because it’s one of the very cornerstones that the company was built on. So if you’re trying to discover or reevaluate the tenets of your company culture, search for it in your origin story.
Live beyond your purpose. Part of ensuring your company lives up to its purpose is observing what business you're in and then determining what greater good that business can serve. In the case of Southwest, who’s purpose is to 'connect people to what's important in their lives,' they acknowledged that they are in the airline business, which is technically a business of moving people. As they dug deeper into this concept, the plight of human trafficking victims became a cause that was immediately relevant and resonant, especially when they realized that trafficking atrocities could be occurring on their own airline. As a result, they trained their entire staff to recognize the signs of human trafficking and follow protocols to bring victims to safety. As a brand dedicated to safely connecting people to the things that matter, they knew they had to align against the polar opposite of that in order to truly serve their purpose.
Use social listening to fail fast. In an age where many marketers are cautious about communications for fear of being accused of 'cause washing' or being labeled tone-deaf, real-time analytics and social listening has never been more important. Social data allows marketers to test the nuances of their messaging in real-time to make sure they’re resonating with consumers and stakeholders, and then correct course immediately if they aren’t. Southwest has taken this approach to inform everything from executive speeches to online ads and overall marketing messages.
The truth is, no brand really ever knows how their message is going to be received, particularly in volatile times, but silence and analysis paralysis aren’t an option either. Today’s times call for better listening overall, and social listening is the perfect place to start to get your true message across.