Let me tell you why I admire David Neeleman. While I feel sympathy for the CEO of jetBlue (who's surely been taking quite a beating in the press lately), and I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his shoes for the past few weeks, I can honestly say he’s one of my PR Heros.
Why? Because despite all of the bad breaks, despite a number of missteps, despite all of the bad press, and despite the ritualistic media pile-on that he continues to endure, his airline will be just fine, thank you. And (as I predicted) passenger volume is back to near-normal.
It’s not because he was flawless in how he handled the Valentine's Day stranded passenger crisis (no, far from it, in fact). It’s because from the day he started jetBlue in 2001, Neeleman knew the secret to success:
Managing your reputation is Job One for every business.
From the airline’s very first day of operation, Neeleman and jetBlue went the extra mile to build customer support and trust. They listened – really listened – to what airline passengers were saying, and provided the services, the amenities and the atmosphere that passengers wanted, but were not getting from the bigger airlines. As a result, jetBlue’s passengers are among the most loyal in the airline industry – an industry that notoriously lacks customer allegiance.
When the crisis hit – brought about by a Valentine’s Day ice storm at the epicenter of jetBlue’s main hub in the Northeast – jetBlue was initially slow to respond (they were in “Stage One - Denial” of the five stages of crisis management – a good subject for a subsequent blog post). However, once they realized the full magnitude of the situation, Neeleman got “out in front” of the cascading failure, acknowledged that jetBlue’s performance was intolerable, and focused on making it right. This included an industry-first “Customer Bill of Rights,” and Neelman's realization that the airline was more important than his ego.
A less-respected (and yes, less liked) airline might never have recovered from such a total systematic breakdown. But jetBlue was fortunate to have had a generous supply of good will in the “reputation bank” – the most important “capital” to have in any crisis. And they have continued to pursue a customer-centric approach.
The result: While jetBlue still has more to do to earn back its customers’ trust, one horribly painful week-long incident will be forgiven, exchanged for the storehouse of goodwill that Neeleman and jetBlue were savvy enough to accumulate over the short lifespan of the airline.
We provide a good deal of crisis planning for our clients. In fact, we insist that our clients have a crisis communications plan in place. No matter what your industry, crisis preparedness and a plan for a disciplined response is a necessity. How your organization behaves and communicates during a crisis can be crucial to your future. But as I say to all of our clients, the best crisis management tactic is to make sure that you are favorably positioned and regarded well in advance of the crisis.
R&J Public Relations’ Crisis Management Practice helps companies anticipate, prepare for and manage complex situations. We work with corporate management teams to identify vulnerabilities and develop strategies and protocols that help our clients seize control of crisis situations and manage communications to help prevent problems and issues from escalating and spiraling out of control.
Tell me if you agree with me or not. I look forward to your perspective. Email me at Jlonsdorf@RandJpr.com.