Forthright behavior will buy you time for crisis recovery

Two respected organizations, one, a publicly traded corporation, and the other, a famous nonprofit, recently faced some ugly issues. That they are both still widely respected is testament to their responses when their integrity was on the line.

Two respected organizations, one, a publicly traded corporation, and the other, a famous nonprofit, recently faced some ugly issues. That they are both still widely respected is testament to their responses when their integrity was on the line.

The for-profit company in this tale is, of course, JetBlue. The airline's cascading woes in the wake of the Valentine's Day snowstorm on the East Coast brought to light some remarkable flaws in its operations, including poor crisis planning.

Keeping people on a plane for more than 10 hours is a PR mess of high order. So is a strained system that leads to delays and cancellations for days after a storm.

Only days after the storm did JetBlue CEO David Neeleman surface prominently in major media, including The New York Times, to say how mortified he was about the mess. He and his colleagues went a long way toward defusing the irritation by announcing internal changes, plus a customer "bill of rights" to tackle future problems. (The new policies faced an immediate test amid another snowstorm last week).

Meanwhile, JetBlue had all but ignored one of its best communications tools: its Web site. Only after the media appearances did the company post a Neeleman apology video on the site. Yet this was the place most customers - generally unable to reach a human being on the phone - were turning to for information.

I sympathize with airlines facing bad-weather situations. They are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. For example, if they send a plane back to the gate, they lose their place in the takeoff queue.

What angers passengers is the lack of useful information - airline personnel's tendency to say little or nothing about what's going on. Honest information, even unpleasant, is better than silence or misinformation.

Utter misinformation is a rare event for our other protagonist: Consumer Reports, a publication that works hard to get things right. When it published a dramatically wrong review of children's car seats, the magazine jeopardized the trust it had won from its readers.

I subscribe to the group's online site. I got an e-mail - and a friend who gets the paper version got the same letter via mail - from Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, the title's parent. He apologized and sounded sincere. He explained what he knew so far about the error, apparently caused by an outside lab's tests. He announced a further investigation. And he promised extraordinary efforts not to let it occur again.

As he and his colleagues proceed, I hope they'll ponder something. Consumer Reports is famous for telling readers that when something seems too good to be true, it probably isn't. In this case - all those car seats failing the test - perhaps it was too bad to be true.

For both JetBlue and Consumer Reports, future behavior will mean more than promises. But the refreshingly forthright nature of what they did say has bought them some time. A lesson there, perhaps?

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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