Using Employee Narrative to Defend Corporate Reputation: Southwest Airline’s Flight 1380 Crisis Case Study

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light more than ever the need for public relation practitioners to have the proper skills in crisis communication management. While this has always been known to experienced practitioners, it makes the case for those new to the industry to see if they need more knowledge and training in this area.

One of the ways to gain more knowledge is looking back at the past and learning from these case studies.

As a part of Ball State’s online master’s in public relations curriculum, students are required to take leadership courses — one being dedicated to case studies. The work completed by our students not only builds their critical analysis skills of how professionals handle public relations issues in global, digital and ethical contexts, but also provides an opportunity for recognition.

Two of my graduate students won third place in the 2020 Page Student Case Study Competition for their case study, “’Nothing to Hide.’ That’s Southwest. Navigating Crises Fast and Well With Human Stories in the Era of Misinformation.”

The case study took a deep dive into Southwest’s response to Flight 1380’s mid-air emergency, where the aircraft’s left engine exploded shortly after takeoff, causing the plane to plummet toward the ground. Shrapnel from the explosion broke through a passenger’s window, creating a vacuum that sucked her body halfway out of the plane before other passengers could pull her back inside to administer CPR. The crew managed an emergency landing, but the incident left one passenger dead and eight others with non-critical injuries.

Already known for its mission of “Transfarency,” Southwest maintained their core principle of transparency throughout the entirety of the crisis. During and in the immediate aftermath of this crisis, the airline remained transparent with its public, regularly communicating updates regarding the situation via press releases, Tweets, press conferences, sympathy letters, videos, inspection updates, compensation packages and blog posts.

After the incident, crew members and passengers of Flight 1380 were featured on various media outlets as a part of a media tour. Through the stories shared by crew and passengers, a narrative of faith and trust developed in Southwest’s messaging. These reputation tactics are only a few examples of what helped the airline recover from the crisis and gain back the public’s trust.

Studying how corporations and organizations respond to the public during times of crisis can provide a way to diversify your skills and critical thinking in your current and future public relations career. Employers are always seeking candidates with these sets of skills. If you think you may need more education or experience to help further your career, consider pursuing your master’s degree.

Ball State’s master’s in public relations is entirely online, so you can continue working while earning your degree. What you learn in our courses can be applied to your career the very next day.

Interested? Apply today. Applications for the 2021 Spring semester are due January 5, 2021. Use the code PRMA2020 before December 31, 2020 to waive the $60 application fee.



Dr. YoungAh Lee is an associate professor and Graduate Studies Director in the Department of Journalism. Her approach to public relations emphasizes the role of reputation, believing that businesses succeed best when they align their communication and business goals.

To learn more about Dr. Lee and Ball State University, visit the university’s Department of Journalism.

LinkedIn: Dr. YoungAh Lee


social media case study… Shark/Ray Videos “Reel” in Event Attention, Attendence by Janet Krenn

A touch tank is the aquatic equivalent of a petting zoo, and an event like the opening of a new touch tank might not sound like front page news.

For McWane Science Center, the online video campaign, Shark and Ray, was featured on the front page of a local news website every week of the campaign. In the end, opening day became the Center’s third best attended, behind opening day and one other special event, and the Shark and Ray characters have gone on to help raise funds to support the newly installed touch tank.

So how did a couple of employees and a few professionals working pro bono do it?


The McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Alabama, is museum that encourages hands-on activities. So a touch tank in that allows children and adults to interact with sharks and rays was a natural fit. More than just an additional display in the museum, the touch tank was an expansion. It required the not-for-profit to attract additional funding to support it while generating interest in the new attraction.

“Social media is the least expensive way to reach our audience, and that is why we were initially interested in exploring it,” says Chandler Harris, Director of Public Relations at McWane Science Center.

Shark and Ray Campaign

The Shark and Ray campaign began as a series of 7 web videos that were launched weekly leading up to the grand opening of the Shark and Ray Touch Tank.

“When creating the concept for Shark and Ray we knew we would be speaking to a younger audience,” says Jason Hill, from Provenance Digital Media who consulted with the McWane Center on the campaign. “But we still wanted to make the humor broad enough to appeal to parents as well.”

“I think for most of us, the most surprising aspect was the range of adults without children that became some of the biggest fans,” Hill adds.

Social Media Tools

To promote the Shark and Ray videos, the team turned to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, but focused on their already large Facebook fan base of 2,700+ fans. Twitter was used to tweet updates from the characters. YouTube was used as an alternative video host to Facebook.

“All three complement one another, but serve distinct purposes. When combined, they are much more powerful then when used as a single channel of communication,” Marc Beaumont from Contenova Growth Advisory.

Behind the Scenes

Those who produce the Shark and Ray series notes that their success cam from building a strong team. Combating the notion that social media is so easy it could be done out of a basement, the McWane Center brought in several groups to work on the project. Consultants helped by conceptualizing and producing the video. McWane Center Staff maintained social media pages.

“It was a great example of how a group can work together,” said Jen West, Designer at the McWane Center and Project Manager of the Shark and Ray campaign.

Advice from the Team

What does the team think is important in having an online video social media campaign?

1. Talent and Technical Know-How

The Shark and Ray team were specialists. There were people who wrote; those who strategized; and those who were responsible for the editing and compression of video. Some worked on the look of the video, and others offered their voices for the characters.

2. Courage

Not only do you need to take risks, you need to know when to reign it in. As Marc Beaumont put it: “You have to have the courage to fight the impulses to make it into a high-end production.”

3. Resourcefulness

Jason Hill notes that the consultants who worked on Shark and Ray, as well as the local celebrities who participated in the clips all did so pro bono. “Don’t be afraid to ask for volunteers and to reach out into the community and encourage participation,” says Hill.

4. Flexibility

One of the benefits of working with social media is the ability to respond. By keeping your projects relatively simple, you can maintain flexibility. “Social media is created to resonate with people, and make it moldable,” says Jennifer West.

5. Brevity

Remember that successful online video is only a few minutes long. Chandler Harris says, “Keep it short and simple.”

The Team

JANET KRENN is Communication Co-Chair of the New Professionals Section of PRSA. If you’re a member of the New Professionals Section, and you’d like to contribute to the New Pros’ blog, email her at janetqs(at)gmail dot com

pr strategy… Case Study in Building Community Trust by Sara Cullin

Few industries are as misunderstood or outright detested as landfills.

According to the 2009 Saint Index, which measures the politics of land development, landfills hold the top position as the most opposed form of local development. That said, few industries draw as much curiosity.

I work for Rumpke Consolidated Companies which operates eight landfills and six recycling centers. Our communications team is often confronted with misconceptions about the solid waste industry. To address these, we wanted to create a program to develop advocates by harnessing the public’s interest in what happens to their garbage.

Designing a Community Program that Meets Needs and Answers Questions

In 1996, the company began organizing tours of its largest facility. Since then, our communication department has offered prearranged landfill tours every week. A 45-minute bus trip around the site provides a first hand look at landfill operations. Our tour guides share information about the history and future of the landfill, construction and environmental protection, as well as fun and interesting facts about the site.

Obtaining Support for the Program within the Organization

Providing clear expectations for management and operations is often key to gaining support. There is a fear that opening the door to the public is also an invitation for more criticism and scrutiny. By demonstrating the effectiveness of providing the public informative, organized, and consistent information, we have been able to utilize more community relations tactics. Tracking feedback from visitors has been important to demonstrate success.

Monitoring the Program for Effectiveness

Although tours have been offered for several years, we began gathering feedback from participants in March 2009. Within a few days of visiting, we email a link to a brief online survey to whomever scheduled the tour. The survey consists of just seven questions, but it has helped us identify topics that could be emphasized more or are of particular interest to visitors. We are also able to gauge the impact of the tour in motivating visitors to be more conscientious about waste and recycling.

Most of all, the feedback provides confirmation of the effectiveness of having an open door policy with the public. Many of the comments we receive not only in the survey, but also in phone calls, emails, and letters, express appreciation for simply providing the free public service. One-hundred percent of survey respondents indicated they would recommend the landfill tour to someone else.

Expanding Efforts to Build a Supportive Community

Our open communication policy has made our organization a trusted source for many local schools, universities, and community agencies that regularly contact us for tours and presentations. To accommodate the volume of requests, we have produced educational videos, as well as provided virtual tours and activities on our Web sites. We have also expanded our tours to other facilities within the company.

SARA CULLIN is a corporate communication coordinator for Rumpke Consolidated Companies Inc. in Cincinnati.

social media case study… Using Facebook to Execute the Quick PR Campaign by Janet Krenn

When California Tortilla won Best Burrito in Washington, DC by Washingtonian Magazine, the California Tortilla marketing team wanted to develop a promotion to get the word out by the beginning of July–and by the way, they only had a couple of weeks to develop, launch, and close said promotion.

To meet their time crunched goal, they turned to social media.

California Tortilla, a Maryland based Mexican food franchise, already had a solid footing in social media. Their Facebook page has more than 3,000 fans, and their Twitter page (caltort) has about 1,800 followers. California Tortilla also has a strong email list, called TacoTalk.

“[Social media] was a good fit for this campaign,” said Stacey Kane, Marketing Director at California Burrito, who notes that the franchise frequently uses social media to run promotions such as coupon give-aways and others. “Our customers are very vocal, and so social media is a good extension, a good way to interact.”

To spread the word about their new “Best Burrito in DC” victory, the company decided on a radio script writing contest. On the California Tortilla Facebook Fan Page (July22), the wall read:

“You know how California Tortilla won Best Burrito in Washingtonian Magazine?? Well we did…and we want to run some radio but we have no budget to pay anyone to write the copy. So we decided we wanted our fans to do it for us. Write a thirty or fifteen second spot saying why we deserved the award and the winner gets $1000 and free burritos for a year…”

In fact, California Tortilla relied nearly exclusively on social media to promote the campaign. But it’s not as if they snubbed traditional media. “We put out traditional PR, but it seemed to only get picked up by the trades, not local media,” said Kane.

Once the contest opened, fans had only 5 days to submit their radio scripts. California Tortilla received nearly 100 entires.

“The entries weren’t just written scripts. Several people actually submitted produced radio pieces,” said Kane.

Kane said she was shocked at the “shear amount of time and passion that people put into [their entries]. The contest closed on July 7th, and by July 8th, people we’re emailing to ask whether we picked a winner.”

They hadn’t. Instead, the company sent all the participants a goody bag of coupons and other swag to tide them over while waiting for the winner to be announced. California Tortilla plans to announce the winner within the next week, when the company launches its new website.

Although Kane said her group did not pick a metric by which to measure the campaigns success, she felt it was a hit. Not only did they get a large response quickly, “The campaign did generate a lot of buzz, and this was reflected in increased sales,” Kane said.

What does Kane recommend for other companies considering launching a similar contest via social media?

  1. “In regard to social media campaigns, stay true to your brand.”
  2. “Make stuff clear and easy for fans to execute.”
  3. “Do what you promise to do; make clear cut rules, and stick to them.”

JANET A. KRENN is Communication Co-Chair of the New Professionals Section of PRSA. If you’re a member of the New Professionals Section, and you’d like to contribute to the New Pros’ blog, email her at janetqs(at)gmail dot com