SWA offers a textbook lesson in crisis management.

I write this a few days after the scary incident in early April when a five-foot long gash ripped open atop the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines jet while the aircraft was cruising more than six miles in the air. Fortunately, nobody was badly hurt as the pilot never lost control and descended to a safe emergency landing at a nearby military base. Nonetheless, the widely publicized incident sent a shiver down the spines of millions of frequent air travelers like me.

The incident was later traced to a bad riveting job, although it raised fears of metal fatigue stemming from numerous short flights embedded in SWA’s business model. A similar but worse tear on a 1988 Aloha Airlines flight resulted in scores of injuries and the death of a flight attendant who was sucked out of the airplane while aloft. Aloha specialized in short hops between the Hawaiian Islands and that accident revealed the until then unknown peril of metal fatigue resulting from frequent cabin pressurization. Both accidents occurred with relatively old Boeing 737 planes.

An important business lesson can be learned from the way SWA responded to this crisis. Without being ordered to, SWA immediately grounded all 79 planes it operated of the same class as the afflicted jet. That was about 15 percent of its fleet and resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of flights and thousands of delays.

The economic hit to SWA and future bookings is unknown at this point but is likely to be substantial. Since SWA flies nothing except Boeing 737 aircraft, questions arise about long-term consequences for our nation’s heretofore most successful airline company. Nonetheless, the company emphasized passenger safety above all else and deserves hearty applause for that.

SWA’s plight calls to mind the infamous 1982 episode when seven people in the Chicago area died after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules that had been filled with cyanide in a still unsolved mass murder case. All of us live with the legacy of that crime, which led to a federal law mandating tamper-proof containers for all ingestible products.

The Tylenol tampering clearly was done after the products hit the shelves, so even the sleaziest ambulance chaser would’ve had trouble squeezing money out of the drug’s maker, Johnson & Johnson. Yet instead of dithering and pointing fingers, Johnson & Johnson conducted an immediate product recall spanning the entire country - even though no case of poisoning showed up anywhere except the Chicago area.

The recall totaled 31 million bottles and cost the company more than $100 million dollars. It spent millions more running sensitive TV commercials featuring Johnson & Johnson’s somber CEO explaining its action and expressing sorrow for the victims, even though the company had done absolutely nothing wrong. It remains a textbook example of crisis management taught in business schools throughout the country.

How do you react when one of your jobs goes wrong?

Whether or not it’s your fault is almost beside the point. In most cases it takes days, weeks or months of forensic investigation to figure out the ultimate cause of a mechanical or management failure. In the here and now, YOU are held responsible in the eyes of your customer. How a contractor reacts even before knowing all the facts reveals a lot about that contractor’s personal character. It also has a lot to do with the long-term health of the business.

Dithering and finger-pointing is the default position for most business owners when something gets botched. Nobody likes to admit to mistakes and, as noted, it’s not always clear who’s to blame. Yet it’s not good to be perceived as shirking responsibility. Here’s some advice from crisis management professionals.

  • Don’t cover up. If you find out bad news, bring it up quickly before someone else does and makes it sound worse than it is. However, first make sure your information is accurate.

  • Tell the truth. This does not mean you have to provide every little detail or admit to wrongdoing, but lying always comes back to haunt you.

  • Don’t say anything “off the record.” Assume anything you say will be made public.

  • Emphasize the positive. Point out all the remedial measures taken and what your team is doing to make things right. Talk up any awards or positive recognitions your company has received for professionalism, community work, charitable contributions, etc.

    Here’s hoping your crisis is magnitudes smaller than the ones that afflicted SWA and Johnson & Johnson.

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