When frequent flyer Paul Lovine wanted to propose to his girlfriend, aSouthwest Airlines plane seemed like an ideal place to culminate what had long been a commuter relationship.
After she accepted, he blogged and tweeted about what happened, and Southwest's social media team picked up on the mentions.
So the airline contacted him and ended up writing a heartwarming story for its blog. All of which proves that Twitter and other social media are not only conduits where passengers complain about delayed flights and lost baggage, but are also a source of stories.
"Content is everywhere, especially on Twitter," says Brooks Thomas, emerging media coordinator, and speaker at Ragan's upcoming Best Practices in PR conference. "Every tweet is essentially a story idea."
Social media fits differently into various organizations' communications and customer relations strategies, from a vital interactive tool to a way of shooing people onto the website. At Southwest,Twitter and Facebook serve as tools both to help make customers happy and to mine feel-good stories that promote its brand.
"It's an extension of our corporate newsroom, it's an extension of our customer service efforts, it's an extension of our PR arm, and it's also an extension of our marketing," Thomas says. "It's all those things."
Watching the Web
As for Lovine and his fiancée, Southwest had long played a role in a commuter relationship, so employees knew the couple. On the day of the proposal, she was planning to fly from Burbank, Calif., to San Francisco to see him, but Lovine flew earlier to her airport. Southwest employees sneaked him onto her plane before boarding began, and he hid in the back.
As the flight was under way, he brought out his guitar, sang a Beatles song and knelt to propose. A fellow passenger photographed everything, and Southwest's blog later ran those pictures.
In addition to its main Facebook page, the airline produces local "station pages" run by staff at each airport it serves. The Make-A-Wish Foundation, which enriches the lives of children with life-threatening illnesses, asked whether a boy could ride in one of the tractors that push back the airplanes in Chicago's Midway Airport.
The boy would also drop by the cockpit of a plane, visit the air traffic control tower, lunch with firefighters and fly in a helicopter.
The Southwest employee who manages the local Facebook page contacted Thomas, suggesting it as a story. Another Southwest employee, who drove the tractor, put together an entry for the blog, writing, "This was one of the best days of my career."
"We're not positioning our employees in any sort of way to be corporate shills or anything like that," Thomas says, "but we're allowing them to be empowered like that and to seize opportunities."
Southwest also directs mainstream media to its blog through tweets, although reporters often call first when they see a promising tweet or Facebook entry.
Media willing to use corporate video
Southwest has increasingly found the media willing to use the video its shoots, including brief interviews. With staff at stations nationwide winnowed by cuts, TV producers have become more willing to snatch up the video, known as B-roll, that they can weave into their reports.
Thomas distributes the video to interested media using a Dropbox link.
"I'm an ex-news guy," Thomas says, "and even four years ago, I don't think that an assignment editor would say, 'Yes, give me that video,' just because of objectivity and wanting to use their own stuff. But they're willing to use it these days."
As for the more serious side of Twitter—dealing with customers' gripes—Southwest hired a new five-member social media customer relations team in March. Its members monitor social media, blogs and aviation forums, solving problems in a few minutes that used to take communicators hours. (Southwest uses Radian6 and CoTweet Enterprise to monitor mentions online.)
This is because customer relations has the databases to bring up people's information and resolve issues without calling around to baggage or other areas.
"They immediately reach out to the customer, they look in their database, they see what they can do, and they do it," Thomas says. "As this has ramped up, the quality of our content has increase multifold."
A reservoir of good will
Southwest can draw story ideas from customers because it has a reservoir of good will from its brand culture, Thomas says. It has also encouraged employees to suggest ideas, leading to an idea from a father and son who got to fly together as pilot and co-pilot. The dad ended up writing a first-person piece for the blog.
Southwest spreads the word among its employees about the need for ideas through its internal blog called SWALife.
Step One in building a good brand name is to generate content, Thomas says. That requires organizations to ask themselves what impact they are making on the community and their customers.
"If you give them content, you're going to start getting more fans," Thomas says.