The elevation of a recently unknown JetBlue flight attendant to national media prominence following his extraordinary outburst as a New York-bound flight taxied into JFK Airport has already become modern folklore. Steven Slater went from obscurity to Facebook phenomenon with more than 211,000 followers in a shade over a week.
It's a classic story with plenty of fodder for the tabloid press, including Slater "escaping" the plane via the emergency chute, clutching two beers and carry-on luggage, and then being discovered in flagrante with his boyfriend by Port Authority police who visited his house soon after.
But the issue that taxes PR pros is whether the incident on balance represents negative or positive PR for JetBlue.
An online PRWeek poll showed a PR community on the fence. At the time of writing, 25% of voters thought, "All publicity is good publicity," 37.5% opined, "On balance, JetBlue has benefited from unprece- dented media exposure," while the same number felt "Slater's lack of professionalism reflected badly on his employer."
One interesting theme to emerge was that JetBlue's image remained intact, in good part due to the fact it already had more of a feel-good sentiment than other budget airlines, due to factors such as its complimentary in-flight DirectTV.
The airline acted swiftly in suspending Slater, though it was constrained in adopting too public an approach on social media channels due to possible legal issues resulting from the incident. It did eventually publish a blog on the subject, hitting the right tone with a professional but humorous message.
Forget the Slater issue. (Joking aside, his behavior was clearly unacceptable and had to be addressed.) JetBlue acted quickly and efficiently. It would never have hoped to gain prominence in such a way, but equally it can never have received such blanket coverage in high-profile national media. Overall, JetBlue comes out of this incident with its reputation and profile still intact - and perhaps enhanced, rather than diminished, in good part due to the excellent reputation and communications work it has invested in its brand since it launched a decade ago. l