The basics of crisis comms

So, what have we learned a few weeks into the JetBlue affair?

So, what have we learned a few weeks into the JetBlue affair?

We've learned that crisis responses that are little more than boilerplate execution of tactics that have been used before - and which aren't built upon a strong foundation of common sense and an accurate understanding of audiences - simply do not work.  Indeed, in reaching into the Crisis Management 101 playbook simply for tactics, it can be argued that JetBlue may have created a set of new problems that could be far worse than the original incident.

To be sure, Chief Executive Officer David Neeleman and the others responsible for JetBlue's strategy should be commended for responding quickly.  That's one important checkmark that matches up with the "10-rules-for-crisis-management" lists regularly offered by every consultant in the business.

But it's just one.  JetBlue missed the mark on three other key "best-practices" elements, however:

-Focused messages. Following a good start, JetBlue's focus - both in terms of whom it was talking to and what it was saying - suffered as the days passed. The company's customer bill of rights, of course, was a direct message to the traveling public and to the extent that the message reached consumers through advertising, e-mail, media pick-up and the company's web site, JetBlue did the right thing. To the extent the message raised the financial stake for the rest of the industry - and is reverberating through the financial community - JetBlue created an issue that will continue in play long after the snow and ice of February 2007 are remembered. ("Dead money for now," says one Wall Street research report.)

-The CEO as evangelist. JetBlue wisely followed another important instruction found in the playbook: place the crisis clearly on the openly caring shoulders of a publicly available CEO. Accordingly, Mr. Neeleman was widely available for print and broadcast interviews. Too widely, in fact. Neeleman's Magical Mystery Tour ("we're sorry but most of all we are really sorry") was so drawn out that it earned a mention as one of "the five dumbest things on Wall Street this week" from The Street.com. Equally bizarre was choosing Maria Bartiromo's column in BusinessWeek as a conduit through which to express Mr. Neeleman's regrets. (Maybe we need to write a new preface to the crisis playbook: When dealing with your crisis, it is advisable to engage third parties whose credibility hasn't been damaged by their own crisis.)

-Acknowledge. Address. Move on. JetBlue also completely botched another important opportunity: address the specific crisis; explain how you have fixed/are fixing the situation, and express your confidence going forward. The company, in issuing a bill of rights through which it may have to pay customers for future poor performance, has conceded that it doesn't have control of the situation; that it likely will happen again in the future, and that customers will have a financial claim on the carrier.

At some point in the near future, we will render a final verdict on JetBlue in this matter.  And, like all corporate crises, it will be viewed through the prism of Johnson & Johnson 25 years ago.  And that's a good thing because Jim Burke, in defending the company's reputation against tampering with its Tylenol products, simply reverted to J&J's corporate credo, written 40 years earlier, which clearly enunciated the company's respect for its audience. 

The simple document provided clear direction on what needed to be done.  More importantly, it also established the most important part of Crisis Management 101: how a company reacts is far more important than the crisis itself.

Overreacting is just as dangerous as underreacting.

Michael Geczi is Executive Vice President, Corporate Communications at Ashton Partners, Chicago. This is a web exclusive for PRWeek.com.

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