No Escape Chute for PR: Jet Blue Dishes The True Blue Story

Jenny Dervin
By Jenny Dervin, Director of Corporate Communications for JetBlue Airways
PRU Presenter, Aug. 26: “PR Crisis Control in the Twitter Age: Dell, Jet Blue and Taser Share War Stories and Lessons Learned

In between talking with reporters and coordinating activities with JetBlue executives, the JetBlue CorpComm team tried to keep an eye on Internet chatter about how JetBlue is handling the recent events. As PR people, we live in a meta world, running the crisis comms while also reviewing, in real-time, how we’re running the crisis comms. It’s a confusing and sometimes frustrating existence, but that’s life in the big city.

Online remarks about our response have run from FastCompany’s kudos and TIME magazine’s Curious Capitalist blog to PR experts’ raspberries and failing grades.

Like every other normal human being, we gravitated to the posts that understood our strategy and why we couldn’t (and wouldn’t) say more about the incident sooner. But we found the critical posts and quotes informative, too, and we can’t say we disagree with most of them.

So in the spirit of sharing our experience with the communications professionals world, I would like to address some of the assumptions and criticisms of our strategy with a “view from the inside” to add to the dialogue around crisis response in a Webby world.

1. The assumption that we (corporate communications) were “muzzled” by corporate lawyers from saying anything or responding earlier. Absolutely, unequivocally without merit. The soundness of our crisis comm strategy falls entirely on CorpComm. Also—it was this assumption in the media that prompted me to write this article, because of all things, one of the reasons we love working at JetBlue is that we have the healthiest, strongest and most supportive relationship with our executives and legal of any company we’ve had the pleasure of serving. They trust us with the company’s reputation, and offer nothing but support. Case in point: We ran the BlueTales post by two people for approval. It took 20 minutes to get it approved and neither person had any changes. (It took us about 12 hours to write it, though—one of the longest editing sessions ever.)

2. We should have said something sooner. This is a fair hit. We hate silence as much as the next PR person. But we love truth more than we hate silence. It was pretty clear early on that there were too many questions about the story for us to go out with anything. We responded to initial media reports confirming that there were no injuries and JetBlue was cooperating fully with local authorities on the investigation. That was all we were comfortable confirming through Tuesday night.

And while we were trying to uncover the dominant narrative (something that most people involved in the incident could agree on), we also watched with fascination while the entire world latched on to the “working class hero” thread. We knew that people owned the part of the story that had only previously been a fantasy in their own lives. We’ve all had moments where we’ve wanted to walk off the job stage left and tell the world to shove it. And here was someone who literally did just that! Of course the world was going to make this story about their own lives, not necessarily about the facts of the matter. So even as we were discovering the story wasn’t really what it appeared to be, we didn’t want to come off as out of touch with what people were really responding to.

So we worked our blog statement Tuesday into Wednesday, getting just the right tone and working over every word. When it was ready, we showed it to two non-CorpComm people in the company, who said it was good to go.

3. Why didn’t we take advantage of the situation to our benefit? Because we aren’t Spirit Airlines. And because at our core, we live JetBlue’s Values, and this violated our #1 Value of Safety.

As of today, the story remains open. Time will tell if our strategy was the right one. At JetBlue, we believe in the wisdom of the crowds.—that the best ideas are born from collaboration. In that spirit, we look forward to hearing from our colleagues in the CorpComm biz to tell us what they think.

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