Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The JetBlue Blues

JetBlue’s mid-February operational meltdown presented a public relations challenge that founder and CEO David Neeleman handled masterfully.

For anyone left in the U.S. who is unaware of the story: an ice storm on Valentine’s Day grounded nine JetBlue planes at JFK International Airport, stranding hundreds of passengers for up to ten hours on the tarmac … and delaying thousands of others. The lean organization — that had enabled the airline to keep its fares low — collapsed under the strain. In all, JetBlue canceled nearly 1,100 flights between February 14 and 19 … about a third of the total.

Neeleman apologized in e-mails, in media interviews, on JetBlue’s website, on a YouTube video … even on Late Night with David Letterman. He said he was “sorry and embarrassed” by the problems and announced a “Customer Bill of Rights” that included penalties to be paid immediately – and going forward -- by JetBlue to all passengers inconvenienced by the airline’s mistakes.

Neeleman also delivered an apology to the folks who worked for him.

“Our crew members didn’t fail us, we failed them and it caused a tremendous hardship on them,” he said, and vowed to provide more tools and resources for JetBlue crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties, including an overwhelmed crew communications system and an understaffed reservations system.

That’s the rub.

While I applaud JetBlue’s CEO for stepping up to the plate, apologizing and outlining the actions that will be taken to ensure that these problems don’t recur, I can’t help being concerned. According to Newsweek, JetBlue lost a combined $21 million in 2005 and 2006; of course, the whole industry is down (scroll down to the bottom of the page). It’s been reported that the airline issued $10 million in refunds and $16 million in credits to passengers and had $4 million in incremental expenses, such as overtime and costs for chartered aircraft as a result of the February fiasco.

How does a low-fare airline handle the financial burden that comes with an upgrade to its low-cost operating structure?

Then there’s the whole issue of passenger safety … and that’s obviously not just a PR issue; it’s an operational issue. At this point, I don’t feel as safe with JetBlue as I did before (based on my ignorance of its thin infrastructure)… at least not until the airline’s infrastructure problems are all sorted out. After all, I don’t care as much about cheerful flight attendants and in-flight TV as getting where I’m going … on time … and in one piece!

From a PR standpoint, I would have a better feeling if Neeleman stated a near-term target date when the infrastructure challenges (extensive hiring, training and systems work) will be met, and if he conveyed a sense of urgency about the work to be done, not unlike the U.S. mobilization in World War II. Further, I’d like to know how he intends to convert JetBlue into a profitable enterprise.

Technorati Tags: JetBlue, David Neeleman, JFK, YouTube, David Letterman, Customer Bill of Rights, airline industry, public relations, business, communications,

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

ESP: Fact or Fiction

Can thoughts alone change physical reality? Can an idea in your head alter human beliefs and behavior? To many this process is known as ESP, extrasensory perception.

Until I read about it in The New York Times on February 10th, I was unaware that, for the past 28 years, Princeton University has had a laboratory — the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab, now closing — that was dedicated to studying ESP and telekinesis (the ability to move something by thinking about it).

Apparently, the Princeton researchers had data demonstrating the power of mind over matter and published that data, but could not get mainstream science to take it seriously. Prominent peer review journals declined to accept the Princeton lab’s papers. Nevertheless, the research attracted major donations from luminaries that included James McDonnell of McDonnell Douglas, philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller and a number of entertainment celebrities.

Whether you think it’s science or science fiction, you’ve probably experienced “ESP” sometime in your life. I certainly have.

A friend or associate acknowledges that he was thinking the same thing you were thinking…at the very same time.

You have an idea and then discover that someone else is already acting on that idea.

Coincidence? Maybe … maybe not!

What if thoughts really can alter the course of events? Can you imagine a PR campaign that includes, as a key program element, large numbers of people communicating behavioral change via thought, as opposed to normal communications channels…and then seeing that change occur?

While I believe that thoughts are the genesis of everything — and it would be great to have thoughts working for us in every persuasive enterprise — thus far, I’ve only observed action lead to change.

As you walk the streets of New York City, realize that every skyscraper was once a thought in someone’s mind. Action converted the idea into reality. On the other hand, who knows whether the thought from Person A to Person B might not have been an enabler...!

Technorati Tags: ESP, extrasensory perception, Princeton University, Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research, James McDonnell, McDonnell Douglas, Public Relations, Business, Laurence Rockefeller

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wikipedia: From Drive Time to Prime Time

On January 29th, The New York Times ran an article noting that more than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia since 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, which is one step below the Supreme Court.

The courts are turning to Wikipedia as a source to corroborate facts, but only selectively. Why selectively? It is largely because Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that allows anyone to alter or challenge its entries. There is no “final authority.”

But according to comScore Media Metrix, there were 38 million unique (Note: comScore Networks says 165 million) visitors to Wikipedia, and therefore, the site has wide usage and, presumably, acceptance. And, according to the courts, if the public accepts it as an authority, it is one. Today, judges are citing Wikipedia for “soft facts” but not those that are central to a judge’s rulings. In due time, I predict this will change.

Of course, this development is an endorsement of public relations in its finest sense, building support in the court of public opinion. As momentum builds, new authorities develop. One day Wikipedia – or perhaps something we have not even imagined -- will completely replace the most current encyclopedia or a similar source as the final word.

Technorati Tags: Wikipedia, New York Times, comScore Media Metrix ,

Monday, February 05, 2007

Publicity at Any Risk?

By now many, many people have heard about the distribution by Turner Broadcasting of suspicious boxes fronted by neon signs with extruding electrical cords — on bridges, in subway stations and various other sites in 10 American cities — to promote the Cartoon Network’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” The promotion generated more attention (see the Wall Street Journal) than ever anticipated, but largely for negative rather than positive reasons.

In Boston, it prompted fears of terrorism, and the city deployed bomb squads, the police and others to check out the flashing boxes. The subway system was temporarily stopped, inconveniencing millions of people. Early on, the city reported $750,000 in expenditures to avert a pending disaster that turned out to be a hoax.

From a “crisis management” perspective, Turner's chairman and CEO, Phil Kent, quickly and correctly issued a public apology and offered to do what he could to make amends to Boston … including helping to locate and remove the remaining devices. But all of the tumult might have been prevented had the Cartoon Network, its advertising department and/or its marketing firm alerted each city about what was planned. According to reports, the marketing firm did not return media inquiries; it should have responded and referred the media to its client, the Cartoon Network, for comment.

But, at bottom, did the Cartoon Network achieve its aim? They undoubtedly got more publicity and word of mouth than they ever dreamed. And I would anticipate that they will have drummed up a big audience of curiosity seekers for the cartoon. But at what cost?

In a YouTube environment, anything with shock value goes. Shock value works in today’s society because of the information tsunami — and the need to break through that clutter. If you’re looking to create buzz at any risk, you take actions like this; but if you are looking to be responsive and responsible, you have to be more discriminating.

In this post 9-11 security conscious world, it is prudent for companies contemplating shock campaigns to understand that their actions can have negative reactions. The public has been warned to be vigilant and report anything out of the ordinary. That said, the public also has a short memory. In three weeks, the vast majority of the public will no doubt have forgotten this incident and who was responsible. In terms of the reputation impact, it may turn out to be a blip. In fact, the publicity surge might even encourage others to do something like this again, which is most unfortunate.

Maybe it is not until something like this has a deleterious effect on a company’s financials that it will change. Rather than waiting for that to happen, let’s hope this inspires the broadcasting industry to set the bar higher for tomorrow’s campaigns.

Technorati Tags: Public Relations, Business, Ethics, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Cartoon Network, Boston, Crisis Management, Phil Kent, Buzz Marketing, YouTube, Turner Broadcasting, Crisis Management