Handling advice is challenging in a crisis

On top of managing its recent crisis, JetBlue had to deal with an onslaught of unsolicited advice

On top of managing its recent crisis, JetBlue had to deal with an onslaught of unsolicited advice

When JetBlue planes were stuck on tarmacs during last month's ice storm in the Northeast, not even pilots or flight attendants could reach the company to help. But make no mistake, JetBlue's phones were ringing... and ringing.

In addition to the 5,000 incoming calls from media, PR firms around the country were dialing up JetBlue spouting crisis-handling advice, no matter how unsolicited or offbeat.

These pitches were far from helpful, JetBlue's Jenny Dervin, director of corporate communications, said at the time.

"Those agencies that felt the need to contact our CEO and the corporate communications department directly, telling us exactly what we were doing wrong, were not helpful," she said. She later wrote, on PRWeek's blog, The Cycle, "I was addressing my comments to the crazy freelance and very few strange agency calls we received during the height of our media siege, who offered such helpful advice as, 'You need to have your CEO be filmed at the airport handing out Hershey's Kisses.'"

PRWeek asked the heads of corporate communications departments at some of the country's largest companies how they handle the influx of advice calls during a crisis. They all asked for anonymity, so as not to jeopardize potential relationships.

"In terms of diplomacy, I think if you are in a similar industry or a crisis expert, then you can safely, appropriately, and tactfully share your experience/recommendations," says one PR manager at a computer software company. "However, if you are a random PR person without relevant experience and you just have an opinion on what you would do... it's best to keep that to yourself."

From a PR manager at a Fortune 500 company with crisis experience: "The best way to handle it is to thank them for the call, indicate that we have the situation in hand, and already have outside agency crisis counsel.

"Candidly, no one on the outside can understand what's going on with a particular crisis unless they're in here working side by side with us," that same individual adds.

That software communications manager, whose company had never been in a crisis as large as JetBlue's, admits to have watched the situation with a keen interest.

"I think most PR people were watching the JetBlue situation and envisioning how they would manage the crisis. I know I did," the manager notes. "In all honesty, I have personally never been in the center of a public crisis situation quite like that. So, I can't speak from experience."

The software manager adds: "However, I have heard from others that when they have been in the center of a crisis that they received unsolicited recommendations from PR folks, namely competitors, as to how to handle the situation. In addition to the legit calls, they also received some non-legit recommendations. I'm not sure, [but maybe] agencies use it as an opportunity/tactic to show off their skills."

In JetBlue's case, it was focused on apologizing for the delays, making CEO David Neeleman available to the media. The company also had him produce a video, which was posted on the company's Web site and YouTube, as well as send out an apologetic e-mail to customers. The tactics won at least one PR convert.

"When was the last time you got an unsolicited apology from a company you do business with?" asks Elaine Cummings, principal at Eastwick Communications. "It demonstrates the kind of candor, clear acceptance of responsibility, and authenticity missing from so much business communications today."

"After disparaging them for their behavior during the snowstorm, I'm back in JetBlue's camp," Cummings adds.

"I think JetBlue did a really good job in turning the situation around," the software PR manager says. "I think it will definitely be a case study as to how to manage a crisis."

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