Thought Leadership

Putting JetBlue in the Pilot’s Seat

So, one day your company enjoys one of the best reputations in the industry. By the next afternoon, you’re reeling from the hits you’ve taken on social media, and an errant employee has become a cultural icon anti-hero. What’s your public relations response?

If you’re JetBlue, you know that story all too well. But the solution is no easy task. Beyond the usual issues that call for consideration, there’s also a host of new challenges emerging from today’s rapidly changing media environment. While important factors such as legal issues, employee privacy and respect, and customer impacts must be weighed, there’s no longer any window of time. Old tried and true practices are about as current as a DC-3.

In today’s marketplace, social media must be a part of every company’s crisis communication plan. Damage to the bottom line from social media channels is no different than that caused by bad press or other reputational challenges covered in traditional crisis plans. In short, it can be faster and deeper, yet much more insidious.

Today, it’s only a matter of minutes before your company can be catapulted into the news via passengers with smart phones, wi-fi enabled blogging and other channels of “citizen journalism.” In no time at all, mainstream media will jump on the bandwagon to beat the competition, particularly if it’s a sure-selling pop culture news item. In this environment, each minute that lapses without response is glaring – you can be behind the eight ball before you even pick up the cue. With a technology-fueled citizenry eager to champion an underdog or poke a stick at the establishment, the consequences loom even larger.

Just think about it. Like all companies facing instant crises, JetBlue has a convergence of vectors aimed at the heart of its image. A stellar reputation can be derailed by immediate social media attention. Pickup by mainstream media is fed by a culture hungry for the next tabloid-cover hero. Prudent consideration of safety, legal and/or fiscal responsibilities, mainstays of sustaining reputation, only mean time lost in stanching public criticism. What would have been a straightforward corporate and public relations issue becomes an instant crisis that needs addressing on the fly. In other words, doing the right thing can actually spawn a reputational crisis. My, how the tables have turned. . .

Indeed, much of what companies will face today “flies” in the face of traditional corporate public relations. Yet, good old planning and preparation still provide the best protection against the unexpected. However, companies must adapt the processes to the new realities of the media environment.

Without a crisis communication plan that incorporates social media challenges, and absent adequate knowledge and training among executives, chances are that most companies embroiled in witch-hunting Twitter or Facebook attacks could easily find themselves unprepared and unprotected. A few, short hours can mean the difference between stemming the tide or feeding the frenzy.

Of course, none of us will ever help our clients or companies avoid all criticism. We can’t possibly anticipate all the nefarious ways we might get catapulted into the spotlight. But, what we can do is be prepared to update our approach – putting the new context into our actions, understanding the potential impacts on the business, and supporting the human factor in any crisis. These are the things that will ultimately resonate with our customers and our employees. At the end of the day, they decide if the company lives to fly another day.

Michael Cherenson, APR, is immediate past chair of PRSA and executive vice president at Success Communications Group in Parsippany, N.J.

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