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September 14, 2007
Be true to your culture
The company that espoused "free love" when it battled to open up Love Field has gone moralistic. When flights began out of Love Field in 1971, chief executive Lamar Muse offered no pretense of being wholesome or giving a rat's nose about offending anyone. Southwest was selling sex to businessmen – albeit of the voyeur variety – and proud of it.
If the majority of comments on Southwest's blog are any indication, (over 900 as of this writing), Southwest seems in need of a vacation. The "be respectable, young lady" story has touched a nerve that goes beyond an overly sensitive flight attendant or a customer who wears a very, very short miniskirt.
It's more about the dissonance between Southwest's cultural history (exemplified by lovable Wild Turkey-drinking, Elvis-impersonating, chain-smoking renegade founder Herb Kelleher) and what it seems to have become (stereotypical hall monitor). Telling a young woman to put some clothes on and then refusing to apologize for it, even among spreading guffaws of disbelief, portray a company out of sync with its history of rugged individualism wink-wink nods to innuendo.
Refusing to apologize and then publicly mocking the customer has given this mini-skirt story legs, if you will, a week after it first broke.
Now Southwest has found itself in the sticky situation of standing by its employees' decisions or being honest about its culture and history. Maybe they could say everyone was having a Senior Moment.
Being true to a culture that has paved your way to success -- and continues to sustain it -- is always the better decision in the long run of reputation management.
Update: In the comments, Jake and GoingLikeSixty tell us that Southwest came to its senses and apologized.
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What is intersting to me about this issue (that Southwest has made for itself) is that it seems noone in PR or marketing made the appropriate noise about how this went contrary to previous campaign images and messages.
Barrett apologized today in a condescending and flippant way.
Kelly announced a "mini-skirt" sale.
You might want to check out blogsouthwest.com to read Barrett's apology today
"Every company makes faux pas. It's how it deals with them that sets a company apart. Once Southwest realized that it had stepped in it in the public view, I expected more imagination and less reserve."
From the DMN article, that quote sums this story up perfectly.
I would say that I'm shocked by how much that "apology" sounds like a commercial for Southwest, except it wasn't very long ago I heard a whole slew of "apologies" from Six Apart that were actually blaming their customers for the whole problem. "I'm sorry you were mistreated" and "I'm sorry we got in trouble for mistreating you" aren't the same sentiment, and it shows.
Sincere apologies seem to be a lost art.
Great post! As a 25 year "frequent business traveler", I have flown with Southwest on a number of occasions, and have noticed that they seem to have become "more conventional" in recent years.
Ben's post today caused me to spend some time thinking about other companies that I deal with who, in the name of "re-inventing" themselves, aka "staying relevant", are straying from their "original" cultures and identities. Even QSRs or "fast-feeders" like McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, et al, must carefully consider the speed and degree of change they undertake - even when they are doing so for the "right reasons".
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