Jet Blues — How NOT to Do Crisis Communications

Jet Blues -- How NOT to Do Crisis CommunicationsJetBlue is in hot water, big time. This company, formerly the darling of its customers, investors and the press, is fighting for its life. And the same could happen to your nonprofit or program if perceptions change, even if the reason behind it all isn’t true.  So read on to learn how to  make the greatest impact with your crisis communications.

Last week’s outrageous delays (the more experienced airlines canceled earlier, and didn’t have as many passengers sitting on planes), anti-customer service (9 planes filled with passengers sat on the tarmac for more than 6 hours with no food, drink or polite handling), poor decision making, and a complete system breakdown that (even more frighteningly) indicates that JetBlue doesn’t have the infrastructure or policies to cope with challenges that are going to crop up from time to time in the airline business.

The JetBlue brand (all about customer service) is toast, and the company might not be far behind. They’ve already reported a significant fall in earnings from the more than 1,200 cancellations, and it’s hard to imagine that bookings won’t fall.

When you do something very wrong, you have to do a lot — completely right — to make it even a bit better. JetBlue needs to execute the best in crisis communications, and that’s not happening.

Here’s what JetBlue did do right:

  • " I’m mortified," said CEO David Neeleman on February 19th, acknowledging responsibility, and getting that acknowledgment, and his vision for making things better covered in major print and broadcast media
  • Put customers first. JetBlue built its reputation on customer service so last week’s events really hurt. Yesterday, nearly a week since the problems, they released a Customer Bill of Rights feature it on the JetBlue homepage.
  • Brought CEO Neeleman to customers via a heartfelt conversation delivered via a YouTube video.

Here’s what they should have done:

  • Acted more quickly to make a broad apology, via broad scale print and media
    • Ideally, they would have immediately (i.e. February 15) run a full-page ad, with a simple, heartfelt apology
      from Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman, his photo and his promise to make
      things work.
    • JetBlue finally ran full-page ads starting today (a week
      later), and will run them in 15 cities over the next few days. Too late, and probably too little.
  • Feature the apology (and Neeleman’s face and video) on JetBlue’s home page — it’s  just as important as the Bill of Rights
  • Put Neeleman and his colleagues in touch with who were on the planes stuck on the tarmac
  • Make the Customer Bill of Rights truly customer-centric.
    • At this moment, at least, they should be giving every passenger who suffered a significant delay on the runway or in the airport one or more round trips to the destination of their choices.
    • Instead, this complicated policy drips rebates/free tickets depending on the length of delay. Not good enough, JetBlue.
  • Get the passengers who were stranded on the planes or otherwise inconvenienced, but whom still believe JetBlue is worth flying (perhaps after Neeleman’s call), out as spokespeople
  • Used FlightLog, their CEO’s blog (or fake blog — no opportunity to comment) as a primary vehicle to talk with disappointed flyers, and the business community.
    • The latest entry (Feb. 1) is headlined "2007 Takes Off in Right Direction," and boasts on JetBlue’s 2006 earnings.
    • The blog is designed as a way for Neeleman to converse with key audiences. Why ignore it?

Any other recommendations for JetBlue’s crisis communications? The point here is that JetBlue should have had a crisis communications strategy up and ready to go — it’s not unreasonable to realize that an airline is going to face just this kind of weather crisis. They didn’t, and it shows, although they’re trying very hard to fix that.

Here’s more guidance on crisis communications for your nonprofit.

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Nancy Schwartz on February 21, 2007 in Case Studies, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 6 comments
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  • Matthew Monberg

    I think something over-the-top…like random refunds to customers over the next few months to say, “Thank you, you are worth far more than the cost of this fare. Have a great trip.”
    Maybe have all of their staff read Jan Carlzon’s “Moments of Truth” about how he turned SAS around. I know everyone is calling for the CEO’s head–but the entire organization failed to manage a critical moment of truth. That’s far bigger than one man. As Carlzon says, every interaction with a customer is a moment of truth. JetBlue had their moment with all of the world watching–oops. To fix that, they need to do something that will capture the world’s attention again so they can undo the damage (or at least try to).

  • LCFred

    Considering the industry, JetBlue has gone above and beyond to repair the situation. I wasn’t on any of those flights last week, but I received the CEO’s apology email and I’m convinced, more than ever, that JetBlue is the airline to fly. You are wrong that the JetBlue brand and company are toast. This will make them stonger in the future.

  • The authentic apology

    It was a tough week for JetBlue. Staking your reputation as an airline on stellar customer service which is what theyve done and then inconveniencing passengers with horrendous delays was bad, bad, bad. So theyve been working…

  • Crisis Strikes

    Hopefully most nonprofits will never face the sort of devastating public confidence breakdown that JetBlue has recently suffered in the commercial world.Still, **** happens.Someone up in the executive suite, down in accounting, or out in the field embezz

  • Jack Heismann

    Nancy, I liked your advice. This was right on target, and very nicely addressed both key issues in Jet Blue’s communications failures as well as having provided some solid practices for others in a crisis situation.
    One issue that you and your readers may find equally interesting is the critical nature of post-crisis intervention.
    Companies (and non-profits) certainly must engage in effective crisis communications, but they also have to act and act quickly to fix the underlying causes of the problem. Once the crisis, or any similar adverse event is repeated, the business’ prior communications will have little value. Future statements, no matter how well designed, will have little meaning to consumers, business partners, or donors.
    One only needs to think of BP, and it’s “green” message, contrasted against repeated disasters to understand the urgent nature of proactive efforts to control future risk potential.
    In an interview in Business Week’s March 5th edition, David Neeleman raises substantial doubts about his ability to prevent a recurrence. Despite a repeat of his ongoing mea culpa, Dave still calls crisis management a “pretty simple formula”, based on “mess up… apologize, and fix what… you did wrong”. It’s clear that Jet Blue needs outside professionals to help them with their crisis management efforts, yet Dave makes is clear that Jet Blue never called in outsiders to help with crisis management, and still hasn’t done so.
    Jet Blue should have followed your advice. But even if they had, another incident – passenger bill of rights or not – will take a terrible toll on the company. That next incident will make it almost impossible for Jet Blue to recover no matter how capable their crisis management communications plan may be.

  • Matthew Villani

    Great, well-written article. This article higlights a lot of great points, using JetBlue as your example, on how a company’s reputation can go up in smoke and how other companies can learn from JetBlue’s mistakes. As a result of the quality of this article, your article has been used by a class at Penn State University (a business writing English class, to be specific) for discussion in class as an example of a top quality document covering the information about JetBlue. The information about JetBlue is used for projects related to JetBlue or recreating the situation and how to handle it. Students essentially recreate the JetBlue crisis and create their own documents (press release, blog, YouTube video, and sundry other media) in group projects to show what they would do if they were JetBlue.
    Keep up the good work!

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