Crisis Communications Done Right: How Jet Blue will weather the storm

Think hard. When was the last time you remember the chief executive officer an American company admitting publicly and repeatedly to getting it wrong? “Humiliated and mortified” is how Jet Blue’s founder and chief executive described his reaction to the NY Times. “Painful to watch” David Neeleman admitted on the Today Show. “Sorry and embarrassed” was how the full page ads of apology in New York, Boston and DC put it.

The discount airline, a favorite of parents and fidgety flyers everywhere for its individualized TV monitors, comfortable seats and customer-friendly staff, is in the throes of the worst crisis in its 8 year history. An ice storm forced the cancellation of more than one-thousand flights in under a week, leaving an endless stream of angry passengers in its wake. In one case, passengers were held inside planes at NY’s Kennedy airport for over 10 hours.

In hindsight, the same gritty determination to avoid cancellation of flights seemed little more than short-sighted mismanagement to the casual observer. “Weakness in the system” hardly seemed to describe the disruption caused by a not particularly unusual winter ice storm.

And yet, there was Jet Blue’s Neeleman, letting the pain and embarrassment of his company’s failure show in a public way, and promising earnestly to do better. His brief mea culpa tour couldn’t have been easy, but it was exactly the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, because Jet Blue’s headquarters were close by, extra airline personnel were quickly brought to JFK airport to help. It turned out they could do little but serve as a target for passenger frustration, but like their CEO, Jet Blue’s workers didn’t shirk from that unpleasant duty.

Contrast that with United Airline’s reaction to its cancelled flights the same week. No statements of wrong-doing or even a bother with full explanations. No vouchers, refunds, apologies or promises to get it right. The only move United was quick about was in announcing it would honor all those missed Jet Blue reservations.

Jet Blue’s crisis response won’t satisfy everyone, particularly those travelers who were most inconvenienced. It does however serve an important purpose in allowing the airline to turn the focus from the mistakes to their attempts to rectify those mistakes.

Jet Blue has to be careful, of course, that no more damage be done to their already tarnished reputation as the most customer-friendly airline. They will have to show a stronger airline emerging: customers will have to get those refunds and vouchers, flights really will have to be redirected, and communications improved. But Needham’s performance I’d predict will now become a case study in crisis communications done right. The top three lessons his performance teaches:

  • 1. NEVER UNDERESTMATE THE POWER OF AN APOLOGY Anyone watching or reading could have no doubt this was a man personally invested in his company’s reputation. Neeleman didn’t shirk from tough questions. He didn’t send someone out to speak for him. He didn’t make excuses and he refused to lay blame elsewhere. True, Jet Blue’s website was hardly forthright, burying the news deep inside. Nonetheless, customers, potential customers, employees and investors got a very public and refreshing look at how a real leader behaves under pressure. That’s the kind of performance that breeds loyalty from all stakeholders.
  • 2. ACT NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR ‘PIECES’ I’m betting Neeleman heard strong advice to say nothing publicly, at least not before a whole lot of highly important people were consulted and then consulted again. Any admission of culpability the conventional wisdom says will only wind up costing you more. Not only did Neeleman speak out, he did so quickly and, I’d submit, courageously. (How many chief executives these days agree to unscripted interviews with national reporters during a time of crisis?)
  • 3. DEFINE THE FIX JetBlue’s Bill of Rights for passengers may have been chiefly designed to dissuade lawmakers from imposing more regulations on the industry, but that doesn’t negate its impact. It is still a strong statement of the company’s intent to do right.

Jet Blue’s crisis of confidence isn’t over by any means, but this is one corporation intent on showing it deserves another chance.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.
www.thepincusgroup.com

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