Monday, April 9

Pushing Apologies: JetBlue Airways


On March 23, JetBlue Airways accepted delivery of its 100th Airbus A320 aircraft, complete with a one-of-a-kind 100-themed blue livery, giving the airline the world's largest fleet of A320 aircraft.

But what could have been a press conference about the growth and success of a low-cost, low-fare, value-oriented business model turns into more of the same: why talk about leg room when you can talk about being sorry?

It wasn't just at the JetBlue JFK hangar, decked out with balloons for about 200 JetBlue crew members. And it wasn't only in the March 20 follow-up YouTube video. It's anywhere and everywhere David Neeleman, founder and CEO of JetBlue Airways, happens to be or has anything to say.

It's in the Sun-Sentinel. It's in the Chicago Tribune. It's in the Baltimore Sun. JetBlue is sorry. Neeleman is sorry. All the employees are sorry.

And, when you get right down to it, this has gone on so long — apologizing for winter storms on Valentine's Day that left passengers stranded on airplanes — I'm even sorry, despite having never tried a flight on JetBlue. I'm sorry they didn't read my posts on Feb. 23 and Feb. 22 that both pointed to the same problem JetBlue would face if it did not stop saying "sorry."

It is estimated JetBlue has spent as much as $30 million in overtime, added crew costs, and free flights. Meanwhile, shares of JetBlue are down 18 percent this year. Its customer-first image, despite launching a "Passenger Bill of Rights" immediately following the debacle, remains in the toilet as exemplified by its name being crossed out on the cover of BusinessWeek in a story on companies with the best customer service. And why is this?

Well, when your most powerful and memorable message is entrenched in what some might call your worst mistake for too long, nearly two months and counting, it will become your only message. And in this case, it worked. Nevermind all the good stuff about JetBlue. The only thing that people think about now is that it had problems. And ironically, probably half of the people who know there were problems don't even remember what the cause of those problems were.

All they know, thanks to improper, overbearing, and too much negative messaging, is that JetBlue did something very, very bad and JetBlue is very, very sorry. So sorry in fact, that its endless apologies overwhelm all other messages.

For everything it did right as outlined by Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategic Communications, JetBlue is doing a lot of things wrong. Sure, it could lobby for new industry standards and get out in front of other airlines with sensitivity training designed to make employees think and feel like passengers as Levick suggests (smart stuff), but first and foremost, it needs to shift from negative messaging — over-apologizing — and get back to what makes it, as an airline, different from anyone else.

JetBlue needs to turn off the sob stories related to what Levick calls the "Valentine's Day massacre of passenger rights" and move off the tarmac and up into the clouds.

Unfortunately, it has been apologizing for so long, the transition will take that much longer. You see, from a more simplistic view of the world, it works something like this: negative messages are 8 times more powerful than positive messages. So if it takes 80 impressions to make a positive message stick, we might conclude it takes 640 impressions to erase a negative message. Neeleman and JetBlue have so masterfully elevated the awareness of one problem that the number of positive messages they need to get beyond Valentine's Day might not fit on a calculator. But, even before they can do that, they have to stop apologizing before it's too late.

You see, in addition to their own "problem-centered" messaging are scores of customers since Feb. 14 who blog about every little bad thing as evidence that no sweeping changes are being made. Usually, it doesn't matter whether one piece of luggage is lost for awhile or that a single flight has a delay (those things happen), but now these things mean everything to JetBlue.

The perception is that it had customer service problems, made promises to fix those problems, and cannot deliver on those promises, probably because those promises (in perception, not reality) were too big for anyone to deliver on in the first place. And the only reason this perception exists is because JetBlue made it so.

Look, I'm all for crisis communication as I've outlined and Levick has outlined, but there is also some common sense and practicality that is missing in this case study. It's something I learned as an intern (later, a communication consultant) at Sierra Pacific Resources.

As an intern, my first task was to write a letter of introduction to the communications department. I was so excited that I fired it off and placed it neatly on everyone's desk (no IMs in those days, hey). The next day, I was called into my mentor's office so he could point out two typos. Needless to say, I was mortified and immediately suggested I apologize with a second letter.

"Here's the thing," he said. "Ninety five percent of the department didn't see any errors because they read right past them, but they will all see them if you apologize. So the best thing you can do for the 5 percent, who think I may have made a mistake in picking you as an intern, is to causally address your mistake to them if they bring it up. More importantly, you need to make your first assignment for the company really shine."

Sound advice. No one ever mentioned those typos. And typos were not something they ever saw again, which is partly why I easily transitioned from intern to communication consultant.

Now, I am not suggesting that JetBlue did anything wrong by apologizing in the first place. That was smart. It was crisis communication on social media steroids and it worked.

What I am suggesting is that there is no possible way that JetBlue will ever overcome this crisis if they keep talking about it. As I have said before ... most people take long looks at car accidents (I'm not one of them), but a car accident can only hold their interest for so long.

However, if you force them to look at your car accident, in painstaking detail, long after they are interested in something else, then they'll become disenfranchised and tune out all your other messages. Or worse, they'll become disgusted or even angry at you and your company.


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3 comments:

msmrmyr on 4/9/07, 11:19 PM said...

When I worked at Texas Tech University in the PR office, the university had to apologize for something and we did it only once and then let it go. Three months later very few remembered what had happened. The only thing they remembered was 'Texas Tech' was an excellent school and they had heard good things about the institution. Don't apologize too often; your friends don't need it and your enemies won't understand you anyway.

Rich on 4/10/07, 6:51 AM said...

Hey MSMRMYR,

"Don't apologize too often; your friends don't need it and your enemies won't understand you anyway."

Well said, while touching a personal life lesson. Someone I know did something wrong to me once. She apologized. I forgave her. We moved on.

How painful it might of been to relive the memory through chronic and unsolicited apology.

Texas Tech, your PR office, and you were all very smart.

Thanks again,

Rich

Rich on 5/10/07, 10:21 AM said...

Famous Last Words:

"The board suggested to David that he could best serve the company in a more strategic role. David agreed. The conversation was initiated by the board." — JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said, talking to CNN as JetBlue Airways Corp. pushed out founder David Neeleman as chief executive three months after a service meltdown.

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