Crisis Communications Case Study
On February 14th, 2007– Valentines Day of all days- a snowstorm blanketed much of the Northeast. Several major airlines, Continental, United, Delta, US Airways and Jetblue, were all forced to ground their flights. But for more than a week, the national and local media focused on just one airline: JetBlue. The company left passengers stranded on the tarmac for several hours, and flight attendants refused to let them off.
Irate passengers quickly took pictures of themselves inside of the cramped airline cabins. Some angry Jetblue passengers called the television news outlets while they were locked onboard the plane. They complained of inhumane conditions, and described the scene around them on live television. Some passengers said they couldn’t go to the bathroom and weren’t given any food, alleging they were treated like animals.
To a media insider, Jetblue Airlines did everything wrong when it came to managing the message. The airline took several days to respond to the firestorm, and by the time it did start answering reporter questions, it was too late. The company’s once superb reputation was now tarnished because of one long, dark night. And it seemed to only get worse with time. Within a few months, the CEO of the airline resigned. By the time summer rolled around, Congress began proposing a Traveler Bill of Rights, using Jetblue once again as the poster boy for why a consumer protection law was needed. Ironically, the other airlines walked away unscathed, even though their passengers were grounded at the same airports alongside Jetblue.
This could have been prevented if Jetblue would have engaged in a more aggressive public relations strategy. It should have immediately addressed the customer service problem and worked harder to communicate with the media. Jetblue should have gone on the offensive, reminding the media that weather delays were outside of their control. The airline should have taken responsibility for leaving hundred of passengers stranded for hours on the Tarmac by offering its customers a financial retribution package. The airline could have said a few flight attendants made a wrong decision, but the company was going to reward those passengers with a free airline flight to any city where Jetblue flies.
Reporters need angry customers expressing their feelings. By offering a financial incentive for their poor customer service, Jetblue would have silenced some of its most angry passengers. If a story lacks irate characters, it quickly fades. Ironically, Jetblue did offer these passengers a free roundtrip to any city of their choice, but the offer came weeks after the media had already done its damage. Yet, another reason why timeliness is just as important as execution when it comes to managing the message.
There’s a popular saying in journalism, “same story, different day.” If you turn on the news tonight, you may hear a different story from yesterday, but it will have the same theme. That’s because journalism is about people, and ultimately, people make the same mistakes day in and day out. Likewise, most journalists cover those mistakes the same way. It’s a pattern of coverage, and once you understand how that coverage is transcribed, you will have a better grasp of managing negative news and manipulating the message.
Mark Macias is a former Executive Producer with WNBC, Senior Producer with WCBS and Special Projects Producer with NBC. He’s also the author of the communications book, Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media. Macias now consults small and large businesses on how to get publicity. You can read more on his firm at MaciasPR.