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 in the role of Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer.

In addition to leading the communications function, Linda’s role is to 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, and was a 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 Linda learned from her female executive mentors. Feel free to listen to the entire interview on Lippe Taylor’s Damn Good Brands Podcast below. 

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, whose purpose is to “connect people to what's important in their lives,” they acknowledged that they were 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 have 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 ever really knows how their message is going to be received, particularly in volatile times. But silence and analysis paralysis aren’t options, either. Today’s times call for better listening overall, and social listening is the perfect place to start to get your most resonant messages across.  

Paul Dyer: Thanks for joining us, Linda!

Linda Rutherford: Thank you for having me here this morning, Paul!

PD: We are really looking forward to hearing your insights, both as a communications leader, and also as somebody who's on the front lines of the things that are really impacting the world we live in today. But we thought we would start with something really central to Southwest Airlines, which is culture. Southwest is oftentimes in business school case studies where the culture of the company is talked about. As CCO, you're responsible for heading up the company's culture services department. So we'd love to hear you talk a little bit about how you describe Southwest culture and how you go about implementing it throughout the company.

LR: I've been a student of our company culture for the 28 years that I've been here. It is truly something amazing to watch in action. As we've grown through the years and our business has gotten more complex, it's been gratifying to see it come alive in different ways. Our early employees, those first 150 people who were hired at Southwest Airlines, took a big risk. They banded together in what we call a warrior spirit today. So it was do or die. It was a matter of 'we must survive against all odds.' The legacy carriers did not want Southwest Airlines to be able to thrive and grow, so for that group of people, failure was not an option. 

I think those very early beginnings served as a great foundation for what our culture has become today. In the many years that I've been at Southwest Airlines, we’ve been questioned — when we had 15,000 employees, and then when we had 25,000 and when we had 40,000, and now that we have a little over 60,000—“How can you possibly keep the culture alive when you have that many people?” I think it's, first of all, in the people that we hire. We look for people who are wired to serve: they get up in the morning wanting to know how they can make somebody else's day better, they have a “whatever it takes” attitude, they are altruistic, they are teamwork-oriented, and they come to help the company and their teams be successful.

I also believe that it is a common understanding of mission and purpose. So we say the purpose of Southwest Airlines is to connect people to what's important in their lives, through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. And we start instilling that purpose from the moment we give you a job offer, and then you get it in your onboarding, and you get it from your leadership communication, and you get it in your engagement activities. We really try to drive that.

The company is very good at pivoting. It's certainly had its share of challenges through the years. The company is 49 years old. Our 50th anniversary will be in 2021, and that spirit of survival is also built into the culture. The people who work here want to see the company be successful and to be there for customers. We say that when we started, we democratized the sky. Because prior to Southwest Airlines, air travel was for the elite. It was expensive, people dressed up, and there weren't as many places to go. And we've been able to make flying affordable and been able to spread our wings and make it accessible for many more people than before we existed.

PD: That's a very inspiring story and way of thinking about the role of the company you work for in the broader industry. Maintaining culture like that is something that requires purposeful maintenance and protection over time. I'm curious about the role of communications in that process. Is this something that communications is involved in defining and protecting at the executive table? 

LR: After the communications department, culture and engagement are two other departments that I have responsibility for and they partner very well together. Communication is a core element of being able to engage employees, because the first thing you want them to do is know the state of the business. What's going on in the business, what are the priorities--so that they can pivot their work to be focused on the right things. And that happens through communication. And so we spend a lot of time with our internal communications focus prepping employees to know what the priorities are, prepping leaders to know how to help sort of get that clear line of sight for our employees. When someone feels informed and engaged and included, then the culture can come alive because the employee can do their best work. That’s when the culture can truly thrive. So communication is foundational to that effort.

PD: Just hearing you talk about it, it's so clear that purpose is central to what you do and the company you work for. But there are a lot of brands today that are struggling with what purpose means, what it means to their various stakeholders, and how expectations have changed when it comes to brand purpose or being purpose-driven. So as somebody who lives it and seems to have it all figured out, I'm curious--what are your thoughts about the broader topic of being purpose-driven, or what advice would you give brands as they grapple with this?

LR: Well, I'd love to tell you that 49 years ago this beautiful purpose of connecting people to what's important in their lives existed. It didn't. I mean, it was attempting to get people onto airplanes at an attractive price, with an aim of providing service that made you want to come back. What we've evolved into is a fierce competitor in the airline industry, but also a company of the people. So, we like to say that we're really in the customer service business; we just happen to fly airplanes. And so we interact with stakeholders all over the place, whether you are a regulator, a community member, a customer, or a social media influencer. I mean, there are a number of different stakeholders that we come in contact with.

Purpose has to have meaning in all of those different contexts. So for a customer, they want to know that you're going to provide a safe, comfortable environment. They want to know that they're going to get a fare that they can afford. They want to know that your operation is dependable and reliable. For an employee, they want to know that they can bring their whole, authentic self to work. They want to know that it's going to be an environment where they can do their best work. They want to know that it's a place that they're going to be able to sort of, in my words, plant and grow. The community partners and elected officials want to know that you're a responsible company, that you are tuned in to the needs of the communities that you serve, that you represent the communities that you serve, and that you are willing to do your part to give back where you can.

Then we have all of our various storytellers: members of the news media and social media influencers. We want them to know what the Southwest difference is, so that they have stories to tell that help build that affinity for the brand. So, you hear a lot of criticism of purpose-washing--that people slap a purpose on the wall and don't bring a lot of depth or breadth to it. And I think that's a caution for brands, that there's this intense pressure to jump on the purpose wagon and develop a meaning greater than yourselves.

And then, realistically, we're an airline. We move things and people. And so moving things and people can serve a purpose. What can that be? Several years ago, we started heavily studying the issue of human trafficking and realizing, first of all, how much of that was happening here in the United States, and then, quite honestly, how much of that was happening on our own airplanes. One of the downsides to being extremely affordable for last minute travel could be that you are a carrier in that regard.

We decided that our purpose was to connect people to what's important in their lives, and one of those things was to make sure that victims of human trafficking could find a safe haven and could reach out to our employees, who would be trained to understand how to spot potential cases of human trafficking and be able to get people resources and help to separate them from their holders. 

Now, we can't end human trafficking on our own, but we can certainly play a key role. We've taken steps to make sure that our employees are trained, that we've reached out and developed relationships with the right organizations across the country that are combating human trafficking, and we put a stake in the ground that we're going to do what we can to make sure that it doesn't happen on our airplanes.

That's an example. You might not necessarily connect an airline with a big effort around combating human trafficking. But the other advice I would give brands is: pay attention to what you do and the influence and the mark that you can make with consumers, and then dial in there to see if there's a need that you can help meet.

PD: So know what business you're in, and then find out what sort of greater good that business can serve. That's just an extraordinary example, Linda. Thank you for sharing that. 

So, we're obviously in this COVID-induced state where marketing in particular is very difficult. Brands are afraid to appear tone-deaf, but they also have stakeholders and numbers to keep up and things like that.

There's a lot that marketing and communications can do in terms of connecting with external audiences, and it has probably never been more important than right now. As you're thinking about some of the potential trepidation that consumers might have about air travel, what are your thoughts on that, and on Southwest’s role in connecting people to the things that are important in their lives?

LR: Certainly right now, one of our missions is to get back to financial stability and to be profitable. That requires increased customer demand — that people want to get on airplanes. And so there's an effort that has been underway since May, called the Southwest Promise. It's a multilayered approach to try and show people what we're doing to create safe environments as they get inspired by travel, as they are going through the booking process, as they are arriving at the airport, and as they are maneuvering and getting on the airplanes.

That's been everything from mask requirements to enhanced cleaning protocols and new ways that we can help you maneuver travel, like any opportunity we have to be touchless while you are boarding the airplane, things like that. Right now, we're doing physical distancing on the airplane. We're keeping the middle seats open so that if you aren't traveling with a companion or family, and you want to have that physical space, we can provide it. And we've made modifications to our in-flight service so that we can do minimal touch while we're still giving you a snack and a drink in the cabin.

So obviously, marketing has pivoted to more of a light touch message around, “We're here when you want to travel.” Right now, it's called, Summer Like You Wanna, and that looks a lot of different ways for people, but we've been using a lot of outdoor imagery, a lot of getaway imagery. So not necessarily to get away to somewhere where there's a lot of crowds, but if you just want to get away, that we can be the way that you get there. 

And what's great about that is, when you call something a promise, that's a high hurdle. And certainly, there have been mistakes here and there, but the overwhelming feedback from customers has been that they can see the difference when they fly. And in fact, our data shows us that after they fly and they give us a score, the score is higher. So we've exceeded their expectations in terms of creating that right kind of travel environment. So we need more of that, certainly, to get to a financially stable place, but that's an example where we've come alongside marketing to bring the Southwest promise to life, to talk to all of our various stakeholders, and even elected officials.

PD: I love the example of incorporating the voice of the customer there with the post-flight surveys and showing how you're exceeding their expectations. Frankly, the communications side of the marketing landscape has been a little slower to embrace that and incorporate it than some of our marketing and advertising colleagues. So I'm curious how you think about embracing analytics as a tool or a source of inspiration for your communications organization.

LR: We have social listening. We're listening to what's happening, to our own customers who are telling us things in real time on social media, and we come alongside the marketing insights to function and partner together. So, certainly, they've got the voice of the customer who's traveling. We've got that real-time sentiment through our social listening, and we’ve been able to help the organization pivot on messaging very quickly if we need to, because social listening helps us get very quick feedback on whether it's working or not.

You've heard the phrase “fail fast.” The social listening that we're able to do allows us to know if we need to pivot that messaging, if it's resonating, what might be meeting with some criticism--and then we can educate our marketing partners who are codifying those messages into digital advertising and things that are more hardwired. And so we're able to give some early insight as those materials are being built.

Whenever we have an event, our executives definitely want to get measurement and analytics right away, to know whether we were successful in delivering our key message. Did we get it into the places that we wanted to? What's the feedback and sentiment being reported? Being able to come back and provide those insights allows us to prepare our executives.

When I can get a measurement report from my team ahead of Gary (C. Kelly, Southwest’s CEO) doing a CNN interview, if our narrative kind of worked one way, but we're getting some feedback and insights out of the data that says that there's a little nuance that wasn't working, we're able to course correct as we go. That's been extremely helpful, particularly since this has never happened before and it's lasted a long time. Even though we know more now than we did in March, being able to rely on our measurement analytics has really been helpful to pivot some of these messages as we've learned more through these months.

PD: That's the dream, right? Everybody dreams of being able to get those real-time signals to optimize their messaging. Among the things that are probably coming through as loud signals right now are the calls for racial and social justice, and for companies to be more transparent and more engaged around diversity, equity and inclusion. As the chief communications officer, you no doubt have increased responsibility around this topic. I'm curious what advice you would give to others who are really grappling with these subjects.

LR: A couple of years ago, we got caught flat-footed on a social topics issue related to The Defense of Marriage Act in the U.S. Supreme Court. A call had come out for companies to sign on to an Amicus brief, and that request, at the time, came in through our general counsel department. They took a legal-lens look at it and decided that because our benefits for our same-sex employees would still be superior to anything that the government might mandate through DOMA, that we didn't have a dog in that fight. And so they opted not to sign on. A couple of weeks later, a call comes into the PR department and it's from a newspaper wanting to know why we had not signed on to the Amicus brief, that that seemed very out of character for a company as progressive as Southwest Airlines, who has D&I woven into its narrative and behavior very strongly.

So then out comes a story called “The Case of the Missing Signature,” and we're the lead. The CEO called, and he was like, "Why didn't we sign onto the Amicus brief?" It was a really good exercise, because it led to the internal formation of something that we call the Social Topics Committee.

This multi-functional group is investor relations, it's our people department (which is our HR function), it's marketing, communications D&I, governmental affairs and our operations group—so, the voice of the employee. We come together regularly. And we've looked at a number of different issues. The latest conversations that are happening around race relations and racial injustice have been a focus topic for the Social Topics Committee to help guide our senior leadership and our CEO about how we should think about that. Thankfully, we've had a number of national partnerships with organizations that have been fighting racial injustice, and so we were able to talk about those existing relationships.

We didn't have to go out and form relationships when this started to happen. We had great partnerships with some of these nonprofits, and we were able to talk about what help they needed and make a few modest additional donations. We were also able to have some key conversations externally. 

Our CEO has been very transparent about the work that we want to go do. The Social Topics Committee, working with the diversity and inclusion group, has been a great partnership to both find our place externally, as a brand, and find out what we need to be doing. And then, inside the organization, to find where we definitely want to make some changes.

PD: Something that's near and dear to Lippe Taylor, having been founded by a female, and because most of our executives are women, is gender diversity. So as a female leader yourself, did you have any mentors--female leaders, specifically--who helped you along the path? And if so, any key learnings you would pass on?

LR: Yeah, I've been fortunate to have several strong leaders throughout my career.  Someone who had a strong influence on me as a leader here at Southwest until she retired was Ginger Hardage, who was the Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications, and also our President, now President Emeritus, Colleen Barrett. They are both strong women who were excellent role models and examples for me, as I was developing in my career. I would say there are a couple of key lessons that I learned from them. One was to have a very strong sense of integrity. So when I see something that isn't quite right, either in the organization or out in the world, I want to take it on and fix it.

And I've also learned from both Ginger and Colleen that you have to pick your battles. Everything can't be a fight; that's exhausting. Not only is that exhausting for you, but that's exhausting for people around you. And so you have to decide and prioritize the things where you really can make a difference, and some of it, sometimes, you just have to let go.

I would say as I've grown in leadership, one of the things I noticed about myself was that sometimes I would get risk averse. So the higher you climb in an organization, the less you want to make a mistake that would jeopardize that position. But that was the completely wrong way to think about it. 

And another thing I learned from Coleen and Ginger is that, particularly here in the communications role, through years of experience, through my background and upbringing, I have a perspective. And so that is probably the most important thing that I have to keep remembering, is that I have a perspective.

The other thing you have to remember is that you have to have the courage to share. It's one thing to have those great conversations in your head, but it's another thing to figure out how to then express those so that they can benefit the organization that you represent. And learn something new every day, certainly. You're never done learning; I firmly believe that.

PD: Those are very powerful and empowering lessons to pass along. So I want to wrap up with one final question here. As we look at our industry, a lot of people are looking for new opportunities right now, and many of them are also looking for advice on the skill sets that hiring managers are looking for. What are the ways they might be positioning themselves or things that they should do as they look for their next opportunity? What do you look for when you're hiring, or what advice could you give to those people today?

LR: I think it is an intellectual curiosity I look for first. There are a lot of things that are what I would call table stakes, right? Some prior experience in communication, success at writing across multiple platforms, ability to influence beyond positional authority. And then I would say that I want to know stories that demonstrate, for me, your ability to build trust, to be a trusted advisor.

There's a business acumen that when you are continuing to grow in leadership, it becomes less about your functional expertise and more about your business expertise and your ability to contribute at a higher level--to the strategy or to the challenges that the business faces, and secondarily, to whatever your expertise might be, whether it's in tax or finance or operations or communications. And so you have to always be willing to continue to learn and grow and be intentional about understanding the business that you're in.

The other thing is to find where you can add value. A lot of that is about your personal brand. So understand what your personal brand is and how you want to articulate it, so that you can show how you are adding value and providing value to the organization that you want to grow within, so that people understand what they can come to you for and how they can plug you in to the overall conversations that are happening. Often we don't take time to understand what our opportunity is to contribute, and then we have an even harder time explaining what that is.

PD: That's all great advice, Linda. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your insights here today.

LR: Thank you, Paul. I enjoyed it.