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A Challenging Time for JetBlue

I can only imagine what it’s been like for the public relations people at JetBlue over the past week. If any of those folks get paid by the hour, they’ve been racking up some serious overtime.

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the low-cost air carrier had an operational meltdown last week. The fallout left passengers stranded across the country, and the story turned into an international media frenzy generating headlines as far away as Australia. JetBlue’s founder and chief executive officer, David Neeleman, has been all over the media, talking about what went wrong and apologizing.

The crisis seemed to culminate on Friday as JetBlue unveiled a Customer Bill of Rights and a reimbursement plan for customers affected by last week’s issue. Neeleman made the talk show rounds, and the company held a conference call with reporters. The company, for the first time in a week, ran a full schedule of flights.

JetBlue’s meltdown will go down in history as one of the worst public relations disasters on record … well, at least until another airline makes the same mistake – and believe me, it will happen. Surveying the wreckage, I’ve found that JetBlue, from a public relations perspective, has handled the mess reasonably well. The company has made a few mistakes but in general has performed admirably under pressure.

Here are some key public relations areas where I feel JetBlue fared well and poorly.

What JetBlue Did Wrong

T.M.I.: You can’t accuse JetBlue of obscuring the facts of what happened, but sometimes too much information can be damaging. JetBlue’s admission of what happened is stunning in that the company has provided so much detail about their operational failure that they’ve given the public, competitors and analysts an enormous amount of insight into how tenuous their operational structure was. Saying that “we’re working on fixing the problems” would not have been enough, but the company did not have to tell me that their customer service agents are Utah homemakers working part-time.

Ignored the Web: Some of the most interesting conversation about JetBlue’s meltdown occurred at FlyerTalk, a forum-focused website for frequent fliers and other travelers, and Consumerist, a website geared toward exposing bad behavior by companies toward consumers. I did not see any JetBlue representatives posting there. I realize the PR folks at the company are working overtime, but these are two very important online communities where reputation-defending is very important.

Not Exactly the Time to Be Arrogant: Neeleman was on CNBC on Tuesday morning and said that the company may actually win new customers because of its new Customer Bill of Rights and reimbursement scheme. Neeleman may be right, but at a time like this, it’s not a good idea to be talking about how a screw-up could pay dividends. These comments were most likely made because Neeleman was speaking to the business media, and thus, Wall Street. Still, the comments got wide play online among consumers, many of whom were not very happy about them.

Failure to Localize: JetBlue cancelled all of its flights in and out of a number of cities, including Pittsburgh and Richmond, Virginia. While these are small markets for the company, customers there deserve as much attention as customers in New York, the company’s hometown and hub. A story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the company resuming service to the city leaned on an airport spokesperson for comments about what happened. JetBlue should have spent some time concentrating on the local press and not just the national press.

What JetBlue Did Right

Admit and Apologize: If nothing else, JetBlue has made a full admission of its mistakes and apologized profusely. The company blamed itself and only itself for the problems. Weather started the problems and exacerbated the meltdown, but weather was never blamed by the company for all that followed.

CEO Front and Center: Neeleman has been making the television rounds and speaking directly with major publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He also taped a video that appeared on the JetBlue website and personally signed an apology to the company’s customers. Neeleman has always been the face of JetBlue, and in this case, he was the sad face of the airline. By “sacrificing” himself, Neeleman takes some of the pressure off of other JetBlue employees and becomes a focal point for customer anger.

Making Amends: JetBlue has quickly come up with a plan to try and reimburse customers. The company has also instituted a Customer Bill of Rights (get bumped because of overbooking and you get $1,000). These actions show that the company is committed to making amends to its customers.

The Little Things: I was surprised to see that a JetBlue spokesperson took some time to talk to ComputerWorld, which ran a story about the company’s “maxed out” IT system. Trade magazines shouldn’t be a priority at this point, but it’s also important to remember that people who read those magazines are current and potential customers.

Honesty: Neeleman said he was “humiliated” by what happened, and you can’t get more blunt than that. He placed the blame on himself and management, not the employees who deal with customers face-to-face on a daily basis. This is very important for employee morale.
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JetBlue is getting some rave reviews from crisis communication experts and airline industry watchers for the way they’ve handled the aftermath of the operational meltdown. There’s a reason why: The company had already built up a lot of goodwill with consumers and the media. This is really a testament to how JetBlue operates, and this suggests to me that the company will weather the storm.

It will be difficult, but JetBlue seems better equipped than other businesses due to the attitude it fosters internally.

“We feel like we’ve been challenged now,” said one JetBlue employee to whom I spoke. “A lot of us feel like [Dave Neeleman] has taken the heat for us, when the reality is, we were all responsible for what happened. How we perform moving forward will define us and we’re ready to prove that we’re up for the challenge.”

I, for one, will be putting JetBlue to the challenge later this year.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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