Is JetBlue's flight attendant fiasco good or bad PR?

When stories arise that we as corporate communicators don't plan, what constitutes positive, on-strategy coverage for a brand?

When stories arise that we as corporate communicators don't plan, what constitutes positive, on-strategy coverage for a brand? What makes a brand mention negative?

The line isn't as clear-cut as you may assume. It's often fuzzy – and intriguing. 

When familiar brands enter the spotlight in unplanned, awkward, or nefarious circumstances, I engage colleagues in communications and media who share my kooky gallows humor in an exercise called “good PR or bad PR?” And this not only produces sorely needed levity in a world gone mad, but it also spawns creative and surprising insights… as with JetBlue.

I don't have to recount the details of Steven Slater, the fed-up flight attendant who concluded one particular trip from Pittsburgh – and a two-decade airline career – in a blaze of glory reverberating from A1 of The New York Times to Japanese TV news.

You undoubtedly know the pertinent facts: the surly passenger's bag-bonk to the head (items in the overhead bin do indeed shift during flight); the final near-giddy, now-famous, profanity-laced, adios muchachos PA announcement infinitely more entertaining than any connecting flight information; two beers swiped, carry-on bags hastily grabbed, emergency chute activated for a glorious amusement-park swoon down toward unemployment.

That these details are a now-familiar rehash is half the point of this column.

How the heck does news like this travel so far and so fast?

What's the tipping point for the bizarre to go mainstream?

How does a disenchanted and dangerous JetBlue employee become an overnight working-class folk hero?

And more importantly, for JetBlue, good PR or bad PR?

According to Ken Ross, VP of communications at Netflix: “Good PR for JetBlue. Alert flight attendant decides to test functionality of escape slide under real-life circumstances. Slide deploys properly and provides safe escape...inspires confidence that in a real emergency, equipment would work...good PR for JetBlue.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is world-class spin.

Reading Ross's take, Tod McKenzie, former senior PA exec at PepsiCo added: “Said attendant also demonstrates JetBlue's commitment to fostering positive employee morale by celebrating small triumphs with a Bud Light.”

Mindy Kramer, director of PR at Office Depot, just wanted to know, “Why was he allowed to have two carry-on bags?  I mean, come on, that's just not fair.”

Our PR peanut gallery buzzed with jokes and astute observation – much like the rest of the country.

Some noted JetBlue is a fun, clean airline, offering complimentary in-flight DirecTV, which provides a wide image-halo berth when an employee has a bad-air day.

Ironically, passengers at 38,000 feet would watch the bemused Slater neighbor interviews, the psychiatric breakdown sound bites, and the late-night free-for-all meltdown recaps. On balance, it's presumably good PR, so long as the DTV signal is clear and the viewing passengers' free nuts and diet Coke are well within their “to be consumed by” date.

My take is “good PR” – at least in the groundswell of support for the man the New York Post dubbed “wing nut,” particularly in cyberspace, where legal restrictions of the “ongoing investigation” have muted the usually chatty Jet Blue social media mavens.

But Slater himself (“Jet Blue-Natic” in another Post headline) doesn't need spin. The foundation for his sainthood has been set already – and surprisingly it's by his now former employees.

When a flight makes global news, it's usually tied to catastrophe or passengers locked on the tarmac for half a day without water or Facebook.

And when a departing employee becomes known worldwide, he's likely fleeced millions, manipulated an industry, or truly “gone postal.”

By those measures, Slater's potentially dangerous, but in-the-end relatively harmless, actions are downright refreshing; a happy ending, in more ways than one.

He went bonkers in the maniacal high style you'd expect from Will Ferrell in Anchorman's film cousin Flight Attendant. If anything, during the sweltering summer of Satan's lair, Americans want to be entertained.

The Slater narrative on the tarmac of JFK in front of his gleaming, modern terminal in an otherwise dirty, crowded, ill-designed airport – grabbing the farewell frosties, jumping into bed with his partner immediately after an operatic “take this job and shove it moment” – helped expand the story and earn the “daily double”: simultaneous covers of the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

But do not underestimate the assisting power of the Jet Blue brand – those clean, fun, youthful, slightly rebellious pioneers cracking jokes as we streak across the harshly unfriendly skies while watching free television!

Imagine a ValuJet flight attendant doing the same. Don't think he or she would be the object of fawning T-shirts and adoring fan pages.

In a column in The New York Times dissecting JetBlue's Slater response, Stuart Elliott reported “the tone of comments about JetBlue, as elicited by the Zeta Buzz online media mining technology, was 70% positive and 30% negative on Wednesday, compared with 59% positive and 41% negative on Tuesday.”

Comments about Slater were even more glowing – at 93% positive, according to Zeta, which was better than both the New Orleans Saints after winning the Super Bowl and one Chesley B. Sullenberger III, of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame for successfully landing a US Airways bird downed by geese on the frigid Hudson River in January 2009.

So, good for Jet Blue. For doing nothing, except giving Americans free onboard TV and building a great brand. You've unexpectedly attained Good PR.

Andrew Giangola is a New York-based PR executive and author of The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans.

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