JetBlue flies solo as it combats fallout from grounding debacle

FOREST HILLS, NY: JetBlue is ramping up internal and external communications efforts after this month's debacle in which it canceled hundreds of flights and left passengers stranded on runways and in airports for hours.

FOREST HILLS, NY: JetBlue is ramping up internal and external communications efforts after this month's debacle in which it canceled hundreds of flights and left passengers stranded on runways and in airports for hours.

Jenny Dervin, director of communications for Jet Blue, said the company's in-house corporate communications team of seven full-time employees drew on additional help from marketing and other departments to handle approximately 5,000 in-bound media requests at the height of the crisis. But she was resolute that the company, which has no agency, would not look for external help.

"Jet Blue corporate communications does not have a PR agency of record, nor do we ever intend on getting one," she said. "Those agencies that felt the need to contact our CEO and the corp comms department directly, telling us exactly what we were doing wrong, were not helpful, and they are all going to go on a special list that I'm going to share with my colleagues in the PR industry, encouraging them never to do business with those companies."

The trouble began with an ice storm on Valentine's Day that essentially paralyzed the airline's operations in the Northeast, resulting in cancelled flights, delays, lost baggage, and stranded passengers through President's Day weekend.

The company moved quickly to apologize for the delays, making CEO David Neeleman available to the media and having him produce a video, which was posted on the company's Web site and You Tube. An email from Neeleman was sent to Jet Blue customers and the airline took out a full-page ad in several newspapers in the Northeast.

Devin said a separate apology video from Neeleman was distributed to Jet Blue crew members via the company's Intranet.

Last week, the company released a "customer bill of rights," a document which asserts Jet Blue customers' right to be properly notified of delays, cancellations, or other changes, and states that they be compensated in the event of a cancellation or extended delay. Devlin noted that the concept was something that had been discussed previously, but that the team had to put something together fairly quickly when it became a more immediate need.

The airlines' customer-facing employees were oft overwhelmed during the crisis, underscoring the need for improved internal communications (see Editorial). The newly developed bill of rights will give the company an opportunity to shore up its outreach to internal audiences.

Dervin acknowledged that the company was initially "behind the curve" communicating the bill of rights to employees, distributing information prepared for the media to them instead of specially targeted materials. However, with media calls dropping off a bit, she said the company can turn its attention to internal communications, customizing the bill of rights for different internal audiences and updating Jet Blue's Intranet with relevant information. 

"Communication is everything," Dervin said. "We have to get this right. We have to make sure that the crew members understand [the bill of rights]."

She noted that the company also is working to develop a customer advisory board, comprising not only customers affected by the recent events, but also industry watchers.

Crisis experts applaud the airline for its timely response, but added that there is still more to be done.

"In terms of media relations, Neeleman is doing a great job," said James Donnelly, SVP, crisis management at Ketchum. "He's doing a lot of things that you would typically expect from good crisis response. He's been visible, humbly apologetic, and the introduction of the customer bill of rights is a textbook example of the overreaction you expect, [but] public relations goes beyond media management. In this situation it's really going to be about the customer experience."

"The fact that Jet Blue came forward immediately and acknowledged the problems and is committed to fixing them...is the first step toward retaining customers," added Matt Gonring of Gagen MacDonald, which has worked with United Airlines on internal communications efforts. "The key is getting the workforce and technology aligned to deliver on it."

Gonring added that the amount of public attention on Jet Blue could actually benefit internal communications efforts going forward.

"Because of the media attention to this now, it becomes easier for the workforce to recognize that there is indeed a burning platform," he said. "Now it provides an opportunity to quickly set up systems, processes, and communications to improve the ultimate service delivery.

"It has the potential to galvanize the workforce, but a workforce galvanized clearly needs to be communicated with and needs to have clear steps in terms of process improvements, in terms of roles and responsibilities, to deliver on the bill of rights promise," he added. "It becomes critical now to... communicate early and often about the steps that will be taken and each person's role in that process."

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