I had the privilege of participating in a crisis masterclass in February. The one-week “Rapid Response Communication in a New Age” course targeted undergraduates in public relations at the University of Florida, but department chair, Dr. Marcia DiStaso, invited graduate students to attend. I am not going to tell you about the class itself (it was awesome). Instead I will tell you about the five things I learned from Linda Rutherford, Southwest’s chief of communications who flew all the way from Dallas to conduct the one-day crisis simulation, that are important to be successful as a public relations practitioner.
Rutherford provided cases, scenarios, and questions online for students to answer during the week. She also blessed us with an appearance for the crisis assimilation. The material was interesting and thought-provoking, but what I found impressive was the woman herself. Here are some things that I learned from observing and listening that were not in the material she handed out:
1. Think on your feet. Rutherford is as sharp as a tack. She asks and answers questions effortlessly. She simplifies things and demonstrates a breadth of knowledge and mastery at sharing it effectively.
2. Show interest in people. Rutherford remembers names, which impressed me. Most people then to be casual about remembering names and some people even boast that they don’t remember names. Rutherford had the students eating out of the palm of her hands because she addressed them by name and demonstrated an interest in what they had to say.
3. Be enthusiastic about what you do. “We at Southwest are a little quirky,” Rutherford declared. The passion she felt about what she does came across in how she put herself in the scenario. She also used “we” to refer to Southwest.
4. Believe in your brand. As alluded to earlier, it is easy to see that Rutherford has drunk the Southwest Kool-Aid. I have never flown on Southwest before, but if Rutherford is the embodiment of the company, I can’t wait to do so.
5. Be the champion of your team. As a team leader, I kept thinking about what a fantastic team Rutherford has at Southwest. She described the sacrifices and contributions they all make in times of normalcy and crisis. Maybe it is a great team because they have a great leader. Anecdotes abounded about how they have stepped up and pulled all-nighters when needed and how they have adopted different roles when Southwest has faced crises. Her staff even contributed in various ways to her presentation. Linda told the students that all areas of communication (internal and external), leadership, and social had to be collaborative. This spirit of collaboration rang through as she discussed her own team.
(Pamala Proverbs is the team leader at PRMR Inc. She is also a doctoral student in the Public Relations Department at the University of Florida)