I met David Neeleman, CEO of jetBlue, a few years ago on a
flight from New York City to California. Neeleman was handing out potato
chips and other snacks, chatting with passengers and listening to their
comments and ideas. Whether this was a gimmick or he actually used the
advice was irrelevant – what mattered is that one could never imagine the CEO
of American Airlines, United, Delta or any other major carrier doing the same
thing. And certainly not in coach.
This “quirkiness” was part of jetBlue’s masterful strategy
to be the “anti-airline,” the only carrier about whom, when the flight
attendant thanked you for choosing their company, your first reaction was not to
throw up but to say you’re welcome. jetBlue’s core wasn’t in-flight TV or
leather seats, but customer service that didn’t belie the phrase. And it all
started with a CEO whose business was about the sky, yet’s whose approach was
down to earth.
So I wasn’t surprised at how Neeleman handled his airline’s recent
crisis. A wicked winter storm, combined with operational miscalculations,
caused a week canceled flights, lost baggage and passengers jet blue in the
face with anger (though thanks to jetBlue’s track record, most regular
passengers forgave their favorite airline for its transgressions – that’s the
power of “branding” in action.)
Neeleman stepped up and did the right thing – he acknowledged
fault, he told the truth, he provided compensation. Most importantly, he said
he was sorry. And he meant it.
He also used multiple platforms to get his message out –
from traditional newspapers to direct mail, to the Web and YouTube. And this,
in my opinion, is jetBlue’s contribution to communications history.
The young airline told a real story in ways that were relevant to how
modern audiences consume information. New media was used as a strategy, not as
a tactic or something extra for the kids – and in fact, jetBlue proved that the
line between new and traditional media is, if not gone, is fading fast.
The company made some waves by using “social media” technologies
like YouTube to speak directly to consumers, but just posting a video on
YouTube doesn’t automatically give you a “get out of PR jail free” card. Nor was
this simply another example of Marshall McLuhan being full of crap when he said
“the medium is the message.” This was about the power of story and the ability
– in fact, the necessity – of good storytelling to be medium agnostic.
jetBlue is to be applauded for using today’s full range of
communications channels. The airline didn’t do it to be more “transparent,” but because these are the channels that have become very much the normal, everyday,
routine ways to communicate. And again, without a good story to tell or without
the honesty and willingness to accept responsibility, the effort would have
failed no matter how many videos Neeleman posted.
Neeleman and jetBlue should feel horrible about what happened to their
thousands of customers – but they have nothing to be ashamed of.