Despite a glut of competitors and high fuel prices, JetBlue Airways still manages to best its rivals by remaining open and accessible to media, and by showcasing its differences.
One of the more remarkable business success stories in recent years has been the rise of JetBlue Airways, particularly during one of the most tumultuous periods in US aviation history.
The Queens, NY-based low-fare airline recently warned that high fuel costs would likely cause it to post its first three-month loss after 18 straight profitable quarters. But that one small stumble doesn't take away from the fact that JetBlue continues to add new destinations, planes, and passengers, even as several US carriers have been driven into bankruptcy protection by fuel costs, labor issues, and competition.
JetBlue's emergence as a national player in commercial aviation is due to a number of factors. Some of the credit goes to its corporate communications team and its ability to position JetBlue as a different kind of airline.
"One of our goals is to make sure that people understand that we're a customer-service company first and an airline second, and that's a message we communicate through whatever media we can," says Jenny Dervin, director of corporate communications.
The company's staunch belief in this message has enabled it to fend off erstwhile rivals such as Song and Ted, both low-cost subsidiaries of larger airlines that tried but failed to capture JetBlue's mind share and market share. "We think JetBlue's message has had such deep penetration because the customer experience is fundamentally different than any other airline," explains Dervin.
One of JetBlue's major selling points since its launch five years ago has been its focus on the little things, including the DirecTV satellite service at every seat. Media coordinator Bryan Baldwin notes that those amenities can provide a ready-made news hook, adding, "Even with reporters that know the industry, the product and service that we provide is unique, so one of our goals is to get journalists on an airplane to see what we're all about, including the service and entertainment."
Remarkably, JetBlue has been able to maintain this strong national brand identity with only a five-person internal corporate communications team and no outside agency help.
"Would we like more?" asks Todd Burke, VP of corporate communications. "Yes, but we look at our contributions to the bottom line. And if we're growing our department disproportionately, it's not helping anybody."
Dervin, who worked at TWA and Delta before joining JetBlue earlier this year, adds that the small staff may actually be an advantage. "There were 85 people in corporate communications when I joined Delta in 1999, and that leads to a lot of filling your days with stuff that you really shouldn't be doing as a communicator but is helpful to the organization," she says. "Here, with only five on our full-time staff, it helps us prioritize what we're going to do."
It also means that every corporate communications staffer at JetBlue has to be a generalist, which ends up making them a lot more responsive. James Bernstein, business/aviation writer
for the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday, says, "I find JetBlue PR people a little bit easier to deal with than PR pros from other major airlines - Delta, United, Northwest."
Bernstein suggests one reason for that might be that JetBlue's headquarters is right in Newsday's back yard. But he also notes that PR pros at other carriers "often do not return phone calls and do not seem to go out of their way to make executives available for phone interviews, even though we have a very mobile population here that travels often for business or leisure. JetBlue's PR people always return calls and have made CEO David Neeleman available at times."
Above day-to-day media relations, JetBlue's corporate communications function is also capable of quickly dealing with a global audience, such as with the dramatic landing of one of its planes at Los Angeles International Airport in late September. The incident, in which one of the airline's planes circled for three hours with its landing gear turned sideways before the pilots brought it down safely amid smoke and flames, was made all the more surreal by the fact that passengers were able to use the aircraft's DirecTV service to watch live broadcasts of the event as it unfolded.
Dervin says JetBlue had conducted a companywide emergency response drill a few weeks before so everyone in corporate communications knew exactly what to do once the plane's trouble became apparent.
"Our plan is built around delivering on our goals, which is to communicate information as it is confirmed, and continually [offering] updates as the situation calls for it," she says. "We don't let the speculation and rumors drive our communications, but drive our story through communicating the facts as we know them. And we're committed to getting back to every inquiry within a reasonable time."
Dervin says the corporate communications teams handled more than 100 media calls in the first hours of the drama. "Over the course of the next seven days, we estimate that we received more than 350 inquiries, not counting the follow-up questions that required a call back."
Burke and Dervin both stress that their role also extends beyond pure media relations.
"We meet once a week with the whole marketing team to find out what projects need more assistance and what's coming down the path from our promotions team that we can tie into a long-lead pitch," Burke says.
"We are just about joined at the hip," adds Andrea Spiegel, JetBlue's VP of sales and marketing. "We share office space, we work on cross-functional teams, and we talk to each other all the time. From the sales and marketing side, we benefit from the PR team's perspective on how an idea will play in the media, and they benefit from hearing us articulate our vision for the product and services."
Burke also recently formed a three-person community relations team to work not only with the destinations JetBlue already serves, but also to deal with cities looking to attract the airline to their markets. "Every community wants JetBlue or they want JetBlue to donate tickets or donate money, and you have to weigh all those carefully," he says. "It's an interesting challenge because one the first things we do when we announce a new city is that I go there and meet journalists in that town. At the same time, our community relations team goes there, as well, to meet with our philanthropic partners to begin building those relations."
Burke notes that the company benefits from having top executives, including Neeleman and president David Barger, who are already well-versed in dealing with the press. But because JetBlue is a local, as well as national, story, Dervin and Burke also provide media training for the general managers who run the operations in each market the airline flies to so that every story can have a local face.
In addition to delivering the company's message to the media through about 100 press releases annually, Burke and his team also have to deal with reporters looking for the company's take on a variety of topics, ranging from US airport security to the latest spike in jet-fuel prices.
Brandon Hamm, JetBlue's corporate communications manager, points out that the sheer variety of reporters looking to do stories on the company does present its own challenge, especially when it comes to reporter education.
"You have trade writers who are well-versed in the industry," he says. "But other times, especially when we go into a new market, we have to educate local travel writers or the airline writers about who we are and what our product is. So the amount of education tends to vary quite a bit, but wherever they are on that line, we meet them."
Even as it expands and enters new markets, JetBlue emphasizes the need to maintain a small company feel. "Oftentimes we have to decline external requests, but we always stress the importance of the message internally because we realize that's really going to be the key to our success as we grow," explains Dervin.
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