JetBlue response praised

Sunday, February 25, 2007

JetBlue didn''t hesitate to fall on its sword after winter storms recently left passengers stranded aboard grounded aircraft for as long as nine hours and resulted in more than 1,000 flights being canceled.

Last week, in full-page ads that ran in newspapers nationwide, the company impaled itself once again.

"We are sorry and embarrassed," the ads declared. "But most of all, we are deeply sorry."

Experts in crisis communications say JetBlue is setting a new high-water mark for how corporations respond to mega-messes. At the same time, they say, most other companies probably won''t learn from JetBlue''s example.

"It''s a knee-jerk reaction for CEOs, public figures and the average person to go into bunker mode," said Chris Lehane, a San Francisco crisis communications consultant often referred to as the "master of disaster."

"Those who are successful are the ones that can fight that instinct," he said.

With its reputation as a kinder, gentler airline hanging by a thread, JetBlue''s chief exec, David Neeleman, announced a Customer Bill of Rights last week that promises passengers travel credits for excessive waits.

Passengers who are unable to disembark from an arriving flight for three hours or more will receive vouchers worth the full amount of their round-trip tickets. Waits of as little as 30 minutes will bring smaller amounts.

Similarly, departures held up by ground delays will result in $100 for waits of three to four hours and vouchers worth the full value of passengers'' tickets for waits of more than four hours.

JetBlue will also hand out vouchers for the full amount of passengers'' round trips if a flight is canceled within 12 hours of a scheduled departure. That''s on top of a refund or credit for the fare already paid.

"Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that you, your family, friends and colleagues experienced," JetBlue said in last week''s ads.

"This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel, and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us," the company said.

"We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week."

As far as mea culpas go, that''s not bad.

"We''re trying to make sure all our customers hear us at least once," said Jenny Dervin, a JetBlue spokeswoman. "We''re admitting to the mistake we made and telling customers how we''re changing the airline."

PR experts say JetBlue''s response to the stranding of its passengers on Valentine''s Day and subsequent cancellations affecting an estimated 130,000 people should rank as one of the most proactive such efforts in recent corporate history.

They placed the company''s efforts on a par with Johnson & Johnson''s rapid response to fatal levels of cyanide being found in Tylenol in 1982 and, more recently, Wendy''s restaurants'' aggressive handling of fraudulent claims in 2005 that a San Jose woman found a severed finger in a bowl of chili.

"The initial response from most corporations is lawyer driven," said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Southern California. "They hunker down and don''t say anything that could hurt them in a court of law.

"They don''t realize that it''s the court of public opinion that kills you," he said.

Dan Keeney, president of DPK Public Relations, a Dallas crisis communications firm, said CEOs need to understand that, first and foremost, the public is seeking a show of humility.

"You definitely need to apologize," he said. "But that''s typically the hardest thing for a business executive to do."

The reason, Keeney said, is that the first thing most CEOs do in crises is turn to their lawyers. And lawyers almost always advise circling the corporate wagons to forestall litigation.

In JetBlue''s case, Keeney speculated that the company made a calculated decision that safeguarding the company''s brand is more important than any potential payouts in court.

JetBlue''s Dervin said no outside consultants were brought in once the storm-related strandings and cancellations unfolded.

"What it came down to was David Neeleman''s gut," she said. "He woke up after an hour of sleep and said this is what we''re going to do."

It wasn''t the first time Neeleman had to lead his company, which he founded in 2000, through unexpected turbulence. In 2003, the airline admitted having quietly shared millions of passengers'' personal information with a Defense Department contractor.

As in the current case, Neeleman moved quickly to acknowledge that a mistake had been made and vowed to remedy the situation.

"The privacy situation taught David that his gut is right," Dervin said.

She said Neeleman called a meeting of all JetBlue officers last Sunday night and laid out a plan for the company to take responsibility for and address the cascade of problems that had caused the airline''s operations to spin out of control.

Dervin, who attended the meeting, said no lawyers spoke up to suggest a more low-key approach. "It was not a meeting that encouraged anything but ''I will get it done,'' " she said.

The PR experts all gave Neeleman high marks for stepping out front in the midst of the fiasco and showing humility in the face of bruising publicity.

They also said JetBlue was unusually canny in posting an apologetic video of Neeleman on YouTube shortly after the cancellations began.

"That was very smart," Bernstein said. "It got picked up by a whole lot of blogs."

So why aren''t more CEOs adept at showing contrition when the you-know-what hits the fan?

"It''s a difficult pill to swallow," answered Keeney. "The average executive doesn''t want to admit that they made a terrible blunder."

Some CEOs intuitively understand how to handle such things, the experts say, and others just can''t grasp that there''s any way other than duck-and-cover.

"It''s like asking a baseball player how he hits a fastball," Lehane observed. "Some can. Some can''t."

David Lazarus'' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He also can be heard Saturdays, 4 to 7 p.m., on KGO Radio. Send tips or feedback to