Thursday, February 22

Jumping The Shark: JetBlue

JetBlue Airways has always been about innovating a new airline, one that offers value, service and style. It does things differently, from leather seats with 36 inches of leg room and free DIRECTV to name brand snacks and sommelier chosen wines. So maybe it's no surprise that the airline is deploying a slightly different brand of crisis communication, which includes appealing its apology to the court of social media and anyone who will listen.

At a glance, the crisis communication strategy that began after an ice storm caused the airline to cancel more than 250 of 505 daily flights and significantly delayed 10 flights on the tarmac with customers waiting on board for hours, seems pretty spot on. The airline was relatively quick (some say too slow) to acknowledge, apologize, explain, learn from, satisfy public interest, and offer restitution, and has taken all of this to the media, social media, company blog (flight log), and even YouTube.

A few people might notice I left empathy off the list, but not because COO David Neeleman missed the mark. On the contrary, Neeleman is one of the most credible corporate spokespeople I've seen appear during a crisis in some time. He obviously knows that sometimes the messenger is the message. In a net assessment of comments all over the place, it seems people want to believe him because it's nearly impossible to see anything but sincerity in the man. Personally, I believe him.

I'm not alone. Despite cutting earnings guidance for the quarter, traders on Wednesday sent JetBlue shares up about 2.2 percent to close at $12.19 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Several analysts has even said JetBlue's numerous apologies may help stave off long-term pain for investors.

"We believe that JetBlue's PR efforts since the last weekend have been rather successful at expressing humility and embarrassment about the problems," wrote Morgan Stanley analyst William J. Greene in a note to clients, according to The Associated Press. "This mea culpa has likely gone a long way to mitigate customer frustrations."

Although some less trusting public relations practitioners are considering the "spin" factor, I remain unconvinced that JetBlue is simply spinning. However, I can agree that it may be jumping the shark. I'm not saying it is; I'm only recognizing the potential.

Can you apologize too much? Can you produce too many course corrections in the aftermath of a crisis? Can you make a crisis bigger than it needs to be, even with the best intentions? Can you reach out to too many people in an attempt to offset negative impressions, involving those who probably didn't need to be involved (how many YouTube enthusiasts fly JetBlue or how many JetBlue customers visit YouTube)?

I'm not saying what it has done is wrong or right as only time will tell, but maybe, just maybe, it has accepted too much responsibility, coming up just short of apologizing for an ice storm, which no one believes it caused. Sure, mistakes were made and it's admirable JetBlue identified several. The Customer Bill of Rights is a good idea, but I wonder if the timing was right. Some people think so, according to the Contra Costa Times.

"JetBlue is taking a mistake and using it not only to address their own mistakes, but to set new standards for the entire industry," Richard Levick, chief executive of Levick Strategic Communications Inc. in New York, said in an interview Tuesday. "David Neeleman is running to the crisis. He is everywhere, saying, 'I'm responsible and I'll fix it.'"

Without question, it is always an interesting case study when someone launches a public relations and advertising campaign out of a crisis communication plan, especially when the concept could perhaps head off congress imposing a federal Customer Bill of Rights (I hope the industry doesn't see increased government regulation and demonstrates it can be adept at governing itself).

So at the end of the day, we fall somewhere in the middle. There is little question that JetBlue has demonstrated savvy in crisis communication, but one wonders if the success of the initial effort will eventually lead it to jump the shark.

But even if it does, you have to recognize JetBlue will likely receive continued support from some of the most loyal customers in the industry. While I have never flown JetBlue, I know plenty of people who do. They always rave about their flights and look surprised when I mention I have yet to board that airline, as if one has not flown until they've flown JetBlue.

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