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ImageIt's pretty rare that you'll go to a social media conference and someone does not use an airline as an example of good or bad social media. Many of the speakers will have just flown on a plane to get to the conference, and as there's nothing quite like being crammed into a small seat for several hours and given a bag of peanuts, airlines are ripe to be held up as an example. 

While overall the airline industry may not be doing a very good job, the J.D. Power and Associates 2013 Social Media Benchmark Study suggests that one airline that's been getting it right consistently is Southwest Airlines. According to Christi McNeill, project lead of social business and listening at Southwest, the airline takes social media quite seriously. McNeill also sits on the communications team, works with a cross-functional team of marketers, customer relations, and communications, and manages social media efforts across the company.

ImageWhen speaking with McNeill, I heard many references to social business, processes, and how teams are aligned; it's not just about how and when community managers post to Twitter or Facebook. McNeill shared that they're looking at a wide range of issues such as mission and social media objectives. Southwest Airlines is going through some significant changes with their social media, building out a corporate command center so that they can more clearly and concisely hear what their customers are saying. You might say that the airline is taking on social in a big way. McNeill told me that it's less the fun and sexy aspects of social, "but it's more of the operational behind-the-scenes business piece of it. That's why we're looking at the social business model."

Social Business, for Southwest, is making sure they have the right employee training and the right employee policies; that social is actually embedded in some of their financial analysis and planning.

Having fun as social strategy

If Southwest Airlines is able to start readjusting their social towards social business, it might be because they have succeeded so well at community management.  When flying Southwest, it's not unusual to hear employees trying their hand at standup comedy or singing songs. Southwest employees are proud to say that they hire for personality, and fill in the rest with training. 

McNeill said, "Part of our culture at Southwest is having fun and taking our jobs really seriously, but not ourselves. To have fun in social is part of our strategy. We spend a good amount of time working with graphic design and internal creative team on coming up with fun and engaging content that really does help show that Southwest culture and personality. I think for us it's tried and true we've had so much success just being ourselves and being very authentic, telling it how it is, sharing information - our fans and followers are looking for news information, information about ongoing situations at certain airports. By us being able to move quickly and give them information and show them that authentic side of things - even if it doesn't reflect Southwest in a very positive light. We've had a lot of success.  Whether there's an aircraft or customer situation, we're very authentic with our fans.  They trust us because we give them the information."

The social media voice and personality that the ten-person team uses comes right from the corporate culture. McNeill said, "everything we do in social media is rooted in core company values in being fun loving, warrior spirit, fighting to get things done then having a servants heart to do the right thing at the right time. That all makes our social strategy work so well." 

McNeill summed it up perfectly, "social isn't for us just a one-off different way of communication it's really tied back to our corporate culture in so many ways."

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The Big Brand Theory is an exclusive column for Social Media Today written by Ric Dragon that explores the social media strategies of big brands, both B2B and B2C. Look for the next installment next week. Logos by Jesse Wells.