Paula Berg, Southwest Airlines‘ original Blogger Girl, is leaving her position to move to the mountains of Boulder, CO. She kindly agreed to a quick Q & A via email to update us on what she learned at Southwest. Full disclosure: I’ve met Paula F2F several times and each time was impressed with her enthusiasm and dedication. Corporate blogs are hungry beasts that demand constant feeding. Paula never seemed to waver. (See useful links at bottom for more about Paula and the Southwest blog.)

DW: Tell me how many years you worked at Southwest. What was your original title and when did you became Manager of Emerging Media?

PB: I had the honor and pleasure of working for Southwest Airlines for nearly 10 years. I began my career there as a writer in the Customer Relations Department, researching and responding to Customer inquiries. About a year and a half later, I moved to the Public Relations Department. And, about three years ago, I began managing our Emerging Media efforts.

DW: Why are you leaving Southwest?

PB: Leaving Southwest Airlines was no easy decision. I have loved working there and count many of my colleagues among my best friends. That said, the mountains have been calling my name. Prior to moving to Texas, I spent nearly seven years in Colorado, first attending the University of Colorado at Boulder and later working for the Colorado and United States Senates. The experience changed my life. I developed a love for hiking, camping, skiing, hippie jam bands, micro-brews, and all of the wonderful things that the mountains afford. I’ve known for several years that Colorado was where I wanted to end up; I just didn’t know when I’d have the chance to get there or how. Then, several months ago I saw a quote that read, “If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life that you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” It sounds corny, but my mind was made up.

DW: Tell me about the genesis of the Southwest Air blog. It launched in April 2006, correct? Whose idea was it and how hard was it to sell to upper management?

PB: Nuts About Southwest launched in April 2006 and was really the vision of our Vice President Communication and Strategic Outreach, Linda Rutherford, who has understood the concept and value of social media from the very beginning. If you recall, Southwest Airlines had participated in a reality TV program called Airline for several years prior to the launch of the blog. Many people don’t know this, but we actually had no editorial control over that show. And, although there were some white-knuckle moments, the show was a huge success for Southwest, allowing us to reach a broader audience, increase job applications, and improve sales.

When the show went off the air, we were looking for something to fill that void. The blogosphere was percolating, and we dove in head first. After convincing our leadership to allow us to participate in an unedited reality show, a moderated blog wasn’t really a hard sell.

DW: When did the blog turn into a community page featuring video, photos, news, etc. and what was the thinking behind that?

PB: Nuts received an upgrade in May 2008 with the addition of a consumer generated Flickr feed, a video blog, a podcast, and several other personalization and sharing features. The truth is, we were just outgrowing our original site and wanted more options and flexibility. But, the improvements helped us grow our traffic by allowing us to provide more rich and diverse content.

I absolutely view the blog as the anchor of the airline’s social media efforts.

– Paula Blog, former Blogger Girl for Southwest Airlines

DW: Do you see the blog as central to what Southwest is doing with social media?

PB: I absolutely view the blog as the anchor of the airline’s social media efforts. It is not necessarily the most trafficked site, when compared to Twitter or Facebook, but it is the one place where we can house all of our content and communicate and play without limitations (i.e.140 characters or the rules and policies of other sites).

DW: Would you call the blog the “hub” of Southwest’s social media strategy?

PB: Without question, for all of the reasons stated above. Also, I think we all have a lot of affection for Nuts, since it was our first foray into social media and the place where we really figured out what the heck we were doing.

DW: Looking back over the past three years, what would you say is the single most important success metric for the blog. For example, a virtual research group?

PB: You’re probably going to hate this answer, but I don’t think there is one metric to look at to gauge success. Of course, we look at all sorts of metrics, but our philosophy has always been to look between and beyond the numbers to find the real story. For example, we’re always trying to grow traffic, but if there’s a problem, we don’t need 700 people to tell us about it to make it valid – one or two can sometimes be enough.

DW: Again, looking back what are your thoughts on the Southwest blog as a channel for managing crisis communications? Would you handle differently how Southwest responded to the airline inspection crisis through the blog? Be as honest as you can about this. I realize how hard it is to be “transparent” when there are huge legal issues at play and when the lawyers are, no doubt, breathing down your neck.

PB: The blog has been an amazing and powerful tool for us in crisis communication. We’ve learned many lessons over the last several years, and I think we’ve done it a little bit better every time. But, all in all, I’m extremely proud of how we’ve leveraged our social media channels in crises. Hindsight will always be 20/20, and, for that reason, we create case studies after each big event to identify what we did right, what we did wrong, and what we need to do better next time around. It’s an educational process for our team and for everyone in the company, and those case studies have helped us to move in the right direction by laying out substantive arguments to facilitate changes in infrastructure, processes, and general points of view about social media. In the past year, we developed a social media crisis plan.

Of course, no two situations are alike, and how we have implemented that plan has varied with each case. But the plan provides a lighthouse, if you will, that guides us through every situation. Some of the key elements for us are speed and substance. I’ve learned that the first hit often goes the greatest distance, so our goal is to communicate as quickly as possible with as much substance as possible.

DW: Any stats you want to throw out? Total number of visits since blog launched, total number of contributors, total number of blog entries, frequency of posting – anything!

PB: I think Southwest’s social media efforts will continue to grow and incorporate into every internal and external communication effort in a way that makes sense for the company and meets customer expectations. For my part, I can say that having the opportunity to explore and discover social media with Southwest Airlines – a company that inherently values customer communication, trusts its employees to exercise good judgment, and empowers them to do the right thing – has been the greatest gift of my career.

DW: Paula, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I know all your Southwest Airlines’ fans are going to miss you.

Useful Links

Paula’s 68 Reasons Why I’ve Loved Working at Southwest Airlines

March 2007 case study on Nuts About Southwest

Paula’s posts for the Nuts About Southwest blog

Alltop’s list of Top Corporate Blogs

My Big List of Big Brand Corporate Blogs (due for another update)