When you were a kid, did you ever accidentally break your neighbor's window, trample their flowers or do one of the millions of thoughtless things that we all do as kids? When your parents found out, didn't they march you right back to the neighbor and make you apologize? That was your first introduction to crisis management. Step one: Fess up.
Strangely, that message seems lost on much of corporate (and political) America. Contrast this month's story by Mike Richman, "Overcoming the JetBlues," with the story by Bill Levinson, "American Airlines Fiasco" ( http://qualitydigest .com/iqedit/qdarticle_text.lasso?articleid=12015 ). Even though JetBlue's Valentine's Day catastrophe was very similar to American's December nightmare--bad weather forcing long delays and passengers kept on planes for hours--the way JetBlue handled the situation was drastically different than American. American Airlines personnel, according to passengers, essentially threw up their hands and blamed the weather. JetBlue CEO David Neeleman, on the other hand, accepted full blame for JetBlue not being prepared for such an emergency and offered travel vouchers for all affected passengers.
You can't study public relations in college without being exposed to the most brilliant crisis management case study ever: The 1982 Tylenol poisoning incident.
Remember that? Seven people died from taking cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules, Johnson & Johnson's flagship product. We're not talking people inconvenienced by having to sit on a plane for 10 hours; we're talking dead people. If there was ever an incident you would want to distance your company from, and scream at the top of your lungs, "It wasn't our fault!" that would be it.
But that isn't what happened. Even though Johnson & Johnson knew that the tampering could not have been done in-house (the contaminated products had different lot numbers from different manufacturing facilities, and the incidents only occurred in Chicago), it quickly pulled $100 million worth of product off the shelves and told the country not to consume any Tylenol product until it had more information on the tampering. It also offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules for Tylenol tablets.
Johnson & Johnson's next step was to rebuild the brand and consumer confidence in the product. Most of that involved the introduction of triple-protected tamper-proof bottles and a very straightforward advertising and pricing campaign. The result? Rather than the unrecoverable catastrophe predicted by industry watchers, Johnson & Johnson quickly recovered much of its market share… and then exceeded it.
For an excellent synopsis of this, read "The Tylenol Crisis: How Effective Public Relations Saved Johnson & Johnson," by Tamara Kaplan ( www.personal.psu.edu/users/w/x/wxk116/tylenol/crisis.html). [Note: This page may have moved or may no longer be accessible]
It seems pretty obvious that JetBlue's people know this story. JetBlue's handling of its St. Valentine's Day Massacre is textbook. Step one: Admit that your system failed, and do your best to take care of your customers. Step two: Fix the underlying problem, and do whatever it takes to win back customer loyalty.
This not only makes sense from a public relations perspective; it's also the right thing to do. When our product or service fails, even for reasons that are out of our hands, the burden to make it right still falls on our shoulders. Storms happen. Wackos happen. No matter. It's our product, our reputation, our customer, our responsibility.