Thursday, August 12, 2010

JetBlue: Good PR or Bad PR?

Everyone’s an armchair PR expert.

Even our blue-haired aunts with scant knowledge of the game of high-stakes, world-class reputation management will say, “as long as they spell your name right,” when weighing in on a peculiar situation that produces gobs of ink, not necessarily for all the right reasons.

Yet in stories corporate flacks don’t plan, what constitutes positive coverage? What makes a brand mention negative?

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

When the shit hits the fan, and the fan is a General Electric model, I like to know how pros in the field perceive the overall “impression” for GE. In thse sort of situations, I go to sharp-witted colleagues who share my kooky gallows humor in an exercise called “Good PR or Bad PR?”

For example, the terrorist released to cheering flag-burning crowds is wearing a Nike T-shirt, the bold swoosh clearly visible in a wire photo seen around the world.

For Nike: Good PR or Bad PR?

Lest you believe our e-mail parlor game for a virtual posse is a cynical endeavor among a heartless group, you're only partially correct.

Good PR or Bad PR doesn't only produce sorely-needed levity in a world gone mad. The exercise spawns creative and surprising insights…as with JetBlue.

I don’t have to recount the incidental 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 here.

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

What’s the tipping point for the bizarre to go main-stream?

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

And more importantly, for Jet Blue, Good PR or Bad PR?

According to Ken Ross, who oversees 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 Public Affairs exec at PepsiCo added: “Said attendant also demonstrates JetBlue's commitment to fostering positive employee morale by celebrating small triumphs with a Bud Light.”

Others, like Showtime PR boss Chris DeBlasio, wondered, "Was it necessary for some media accounts to include the fact that the accused was found in bed with his partner at a seaside apartment in Rockaway?"

To which Pete Millerman, a writer in Brooklyn responded, “From a 'good journalism' standpoint? It was completely superfluous reportage - the type of thing a principled copy editor or journalism professor would red 'x,' or call you out on. From a perspective of picking up the NY Post and reading the news? It was a hilarious and awesome tidbit, made the story juicier, fleshed out the whole scenario in another dimension, and added to our already vivid mental picture of the maniac's personality.”

Mindy Kramer, Director of Public Relations 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.”

The arrest photo nabbed the attention of Molly Choi, who runs marketing and for Cape Classics, an importer of fine wine: “Is Slater giving that tattooed cop directions on how to fasten his seat belt by inserting the metal buckle till he hears a click, and adjusting it by pulling on the loose end of the strap?”

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-bytes, 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 overall take is Good PR – at least in the groundswell of support for the man the 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. By his former employer.

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 Daily News.

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

Imagine a ValueJet flight attendant cursing out coach and busting home via the deployed chute after a non-water landing. Don’t think she’d be the object of fawning t-shirts and adoring fan pages.

In a New York Times column 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.

As for our peanut gallery’s suggestions to JetBlue?

The best advice may have come from J. Christopher Kervick, a Connecticut judge. “The PR depends on what they do from this point forward. ‘We care about our employees and are making the full array of employee assistance programs available to him, etc. While we regret any inconvenience to our passengers, we believe they can certainly all understand the day-to-day pressures our flight attendants are under.’ That kind of thing.”

That kind of thing indeed. If any of us grow mad as hell, can’t take it anymore, and go out in a blaze of glory in a certain region of New England, may be wind up in front of this wise judge.


Andrew Giangola is author of the critically acclaimed new book, THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans, available online and wherever fine books are sold. He is currently attempting to contact Steven Slater to write his life story, GOING OUT WITH A BANG (double entendre intended).