Friday, February 23

Discussing JetBlue: Levick

Richard S. Levick is the president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, which was named Crisis Agency of the Year in 2005 by The Holmes Report. The report provides in-depth news analysis and features on trends and issues in the public relations business.

Levick's firm, which has offices in New York, Washington D.C. and London, directs high-profile communications, including: the Catholic Church scandals, the spinach e-coli crisis, large legal and regulatory actions globally, and a number of the most significant matters arising out of the Middle East and Latin America.

Levick has been making the rounds in the media, discussing JetBlue and giving it high marks in handling its crisis. Recently, in an interview with he said "JetBlue has run to the crisis, taking responsibility not just for itself but for the entire industry."

Specifically, Levick outlined what he calls five key tenets of sound crisis management:

• Run to it. Avoid "duck and cover."
• All companies will have a crisis. Be prepared.
• Know your crisis team. Now.
• Make a sacrifice. Companies often want to win it all.
• Avoid saying "no comment." A crisis abhors a vacuum.

"The critical role is to run to the crisis," he told ConsumerAffairs. "People don't want to sue people they like and trust. What happens so often is that CEOs lawyer-up and say nothing."

On any given day of the week, I would agree with Levick. It's sound advice, pure and simple, except something with JetBlue has not sat well with me. In between discussing the finer points of introducing an abbreviated name in a new release to sharing some real life crisis communication situations I've worked on to about a dozen student public relations professionals last night, I think I decided what it might be. There are some fine details missed by JetBlue, and American Airlines might have noticed.

Anyone can write up some crisis communication points, but the devil in the details is how those points are interpreted and applied to a unique crisis communication situation. For example, if you overlay Moving Beyond Bad News, which we presented a few days ago, you might come up with the notion that JetBlue did everything right too. Or not.

Here are a few key points from that list that seem to be making a difference:

Have you satisfied the public interest? If you want to move beyond bad news, you have to commit to regularly reporting additional information until no public interest remains. In JetBlue's case, it may be oversatisfying public interest. It could very well be that it has apologized so much that the effectiveness of the apology is wearing thin.

Have you included positive steps being taken to address the situation? Naturally, this is being addressed by JetBlue's Customer Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, one might wonder if it forever branded the Customer Bill of Rights to the original crisis. Perhaps it would have been better to wait a few weeks, after resolving the remedy specific to the incident.

Did you offer restitution? As much as JetBlue has been apologizing, it seems to me it has buried the fact that it did indeed offer restitution. So much so, some people don't know that the airline's future plan includes giving passengers aboard departing planes delayed for three to four hours a $100 voucher if the voucher would be equal to the amount of their round-trip ticket. Given the amount of money spent on paid advertising apologies by the company, one might also wonder if that money would have been better spent with the passengers aboard the planes.

Perhaps it's these small weaknesses in the plan that reinforced American Airlines decision to beef up service at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, a move that will put additional pressure on Delta Air Lines and JetBlue. American Airlines has said that its plans are unrelated to JetBlue, and the Newsday article includes that JetBlue folks believe the plan will not have any impact.

For public relations practitioners, I hope this also provides some conversation in understanding that formulas, bulleted action plans, are great for guidance, but are never absolute. Every crisis communication situation is different, and requires a modified course of action.

Worse, if everyone over apologized all the time about things that were at least partly out of their control, sooner or later, the public won't believe any of them, no matter how sincere or appropriate the message and its meaning. That said, please don't allow me to convince anyone that JetBlue is doing something wrong. Contrary to that, they are doing more right than most.



Rich on 2/25/07, 4:03 PM said...

JetBlue's self-imposed punishment for about 130,000 passengers is estimated at as much as $30 million in lost income, refunds and rebates to customers, who were stranded at JFK International and elsewhere.

Richard Levick on 4/3/07, 1:17 PM said...


Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

Here's a bit more elaboration about the JetBlue crisis that we posted on our website, should you be interested.

Thanks again.

Rich on 4/3/07, 1:50 PM said...

Hey Richard,

Thank you very much for dropping by. It's very relevant information and I encourage anyone interested in JetBlue to read the elaboration.

Incidentally, I still think they risk over apologizing or perhaps losing any semblance of message management as demonstrated by the newest video posted on David Neeleman's flight log (March 20). It's well intended, but doesn't ring as true as the initial apology.

However, I haven't revisited the issue in some time. I hope you don't mind if I reference you again when I do cover how it all shook out. You make several very excellent observations in crisis communication worth talking about.

All my best,


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