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From Black and Blue to True Blue

February 20th, 2007

I couldn’t help hearing the pain in JetBlue CEO David Neeleman’s voice as he accepted on-air calls from irate customers during his three-day PR mea-culpa this week. I heard it on NPR. The host said that the board was lit up with people eager to blast him for last week’s inhumane treatment triggered by an ice storm.

JetBlue left 10 of its planes on the tarmac at JFK stranding passengers for hours — one flight for nearly 11 hours — with no food, bad air and worse — no communication of what was happening. As I could hear in Neeleman’s voice, this wasn’t just a blip in JetBlue’s service model. This was a direct and nearly fatal blow to his carefully orchestrated brand experience.

The company’s mission is the first thing you find on www.jetblue.com: “Our promise: to bring humanity back to air travel.” Against all odds, this unfortunate instance will not be fatal to JetBlue. The brand will recover — not because of the seven years of built up good will; and not because of its new “Passengers Bill of Rights” unveiled on the Today Show. Not even for the extraordinary lengths the company is going to revamp its crew and flight schedules at a cost of millions. But because of the simple act of courage that Neeleman’s voice conveyed. He said he cared. He showed he cared. In the end, that’s all the public really wants.

In Crisis 101, the underlying question in every reporter’s interview and behind every hurt and angry customer’s rant is simply, “Do you care?” For JetBlue, the answer was a resounding yes.

See a message from Neeleman below. It’s on the company’s website as well as on YouTube.

Comments the video has already gotten show the public’s response to JetBlue’s crisis response:

xjaspx (5 hours ago)

I will still fly jetBlue, even though the airline kindda screw up the past few days. Thank you jetBlue for recognizing a problem and doing something about it! jetBlue always has been and always will be one of the best airline in the industry.

ldorfman (5 hours ago)

This is the way a CEO should act in such situations! Good Luck jetBlue!
A very satisfied customer

What’s remarkable about Neeleman’s three-day PR juggernaut is what he didn’t say. He didn’t say that other people or organizations were to blame. He didn’t say that he is in a tough industry. He didn’t say that the circumstances were beyond his control. He simply said – and simple is the key here — “I’m sorry. You’re right, we screwed up, and we’ll do our best to make it up to you.”

The radio caller that I heard began with a blast. “Do you know what you did to me?” You’ve lost me as a customer forever.” Neeleman took the punch. He continued to show the caller that he cared. By the end of the call, the anger had subsided. The caller asked him to pass on praise for the JetBlue staff and crew that did their best under difficult circumstances. That single turnaround for that customer was the sound of a brand being rebuilt.

Over the next six months, JetBlue might run TV ads showing their new bold actions. They might hold town meetings in cities particularly hurt by their inaction. They might enact new standards for the entire industry. But in the end, the bulk of the recovery is already underway. They told us and showed us they cared.

Isn’t that what anyone really wants?

Posted Under: Crisis Communications, Public Relations
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