PR? We don’t need no stinking PR

We once had an aggressive, new biz-focused account person who was constantly cold calling 23jetblue_1 companies. One day, she cold called David Neeleman, the now beleagured CEO of JetBlue. And, she actually got through, only to be told by the uber successful chief executive: "We don’t need outside PR counsel. Never did. Never will."

Fast forward to the cover story in yesterday’s Times. I’d bet my bottom dollar Mr. Neeleman is now paying some PR shop hundreds of thousands in crisis communications fees to help him try and save his company’s battered image and reputation.

Might a prior invesment in external PR have helped last week’s disaster and its reputation aftermath? Maybe. Maybe not. One thing’s for sure, though, an external PR firm would have media trained Mr. Neeleman and schooled him on what promises to make and when. Right now, his credibility, and that of his airline, is in a death spiral, all because of horrific performance and broken promises.

So, here’s hoping Neeleman can fix his current mess (and maybe be more open to assistance from public relations counsel in the future).

17 thoughts on “PR? We don’t need no stinking PR

  1. A well-written mea culpa goes a long way. This was in my inbox this AM. Has anyone ever gotten anything with this tone from American or US Air? JetBlue will be just fine.
    Dear JetBlue Customers,
    We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.
    Last week was the worst operational week in JetBlue’s seven year history. Following the severe winter ice storm in the Northeast, we subjected our customers to unacceptable delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage, and other major inconveniences. The storm disrupted the movement of aircraft, and, more importantly, disrupted the movement of JetBlue’s pilot and inflight crewmembers who were depending on those planes to get them to the airports where they were scheduled to serve you. With the busy President’s Day weekend upon us, rebooking opportunities were scarce and hold times at 1-800-JETBLUE were unacceptably long or not even available, further hindering our recovery efforts.
    Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that we caused. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week.
    We are committed to you, our valued customers, and are taking immediate corrective steps to regain your confidence in us. We have begun putting a comprehensive plan in place to provide better and more timely information to you, more tools and resources for our crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties in the future. We are confident, as a result of these actions, that JetBlue will emerge as a more reliable and even more customer responsive airline than ever before.
    Most importantly, we have published the JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights—our official commitment to you of how we will handle operational interruptions going forward—including details of compensation. I have a video message to share with you about this industry leading action.
    You deserved better—a lot better—from us last week. Nothing is more important than regaining your trust and all of us here hope you will give us the opportunity to welcome you onboard again soon and provide you the positive JetBlue Experience you have come to expect from us.
    David Neeleman
    Founder and CEO
    JetBlue Airways
    © 2007 JetBlue Airways Unsubscribe Help TrueBlue Corporate Travel Privacy About JetBlue

  2. JetBlue is doing everything right in the aftermath of the crisis, med guy. My original point, though, remains the same: the crisis was escalated because the CEO promised something he couldn’t deliver on (a full schedule on the Saturday of the crisis). Strong PR counselors have the courage of their convictions and will stand up to CEOs who may be drinking their own Kool-aid. And, it’s easier for an outside counselor to provide “tough love” in a crisis precisely because he or she isn’t worried about rocking the boat and potentially jeopardizing one’s job. Not sure how things work in the wacky world of med supplies, but that’s the way it goes down in corporate America.

  3. there he is, the lunch moron has awoken- piping up with nothing only to try and spin, spin, spin away from my valid points. you are one pathetic sole- i feel for you, so much so, i want to send you some money for the bills this month- b/c lord knows you ain’t makin the cheddar in your job. well, that and i just closed a 7 figure deal, so i am feeling quite the generous one. where do i send the money?

  4. MSE, when will you hush and allow the sick people of NJ their deliveries of medical supplies?
    Also, anyone catch Jet Blue’s CEO on Letterman last night? If so, weigh in.

  5. no repman, its you that doest understand. this has NOTHING to do with outside vs. in house pr counsel. ANY half brained pr peson would have told him not to over promise and under deliver. when he made that comment, he believed it to be true.
    you keep making the ridiculous argument that “outside pr counsel this and outside pr counsel that” but the fact is this has zero to do with what happened to jet blue.
    and by the way, your point about outside counsel preventing him from making his comment about when the planes would be flying is nothing more than a bowl of hot air. if he was your client and told you tha all planes will be flying saturday, you would have told him to make that statement and reassure the public. and if you deny that, you are simply playing a poor monday morning quarterback…

  6. The JetBlue situation reinforces the notion that PR is a relationship-building business. If implemented properly, it starts long before any potential crisis occurs. Crises can happen regardless of any PR counsel in place, but the point remains that IF the two-way communications exist, then there are fewer blunders on the part of the executive team AFTER the crisis. JetBlue is going to end up in the PR textbooks as another example of what not to do.

  7. Med guy: JetBlue’s CEO made a classic public relations blunder when he promised on Friday that his planes would be fully operational on Saturday. They weren’t. That destroyed his credibility, and is something a wise outside PR counsel would have helped prevented from happening. What part of that don’t you understand?

  8. stacy- the only thing repman did in his post today is act like a bitter little child and say “i told you so” to jet blue. if you want to read an educated and interesting blog on this topic, check out ed’s blog on measuring up. and if you think i am wrong, see the repman’s last line:
    “and maybe be more open to assistance from public relations counsel in the future”
    this crisis comes down to one thing- an inexperienced company when it came to handling a crisis. the fact that they told cody and co. they weren’t needed had NOTHING to do with what happened to them…

  9. lunch moron- how about piping in as your moronic self here and correcting the repman’s grammar in his last sentence to me: “This is ALL about image and reputation, med supply guy, and external PR counsel could have Neeleman helped in advance”

  10. repman, what makes external pr counsel any more or less competent than in-house counsel? you do realize that in house counsel probably has big agency experience and can go through the text book/boilerplate media traning exercise with execs the way outside counsel does. hate to be the one to break the news- but there is no secret formula when it comes to media training…

  11. One more point directed at Med Supply Guy: The example you cite, the Tylenol crisis, was handled by outside PR counsel, Burson (I believe). The agency won many awards for the way it handled the situation—and became the “crisis communications example” for most. So, perhaps it wasn’t the best way to make your point.
    I don’t think RepMan was saying that lack of outside counsel is the *only* reason JetBlue made some missteps along the way in handling its current crisis. Speaking from first-hand experience as an in-house corporate communications professional, sometimes it’s wise to step outside of your own world to get a third-party’s expert advice. You can’t always foresee and think of every potential disaster, and in fact, can have a clouded view of how to handle things once you’re in the middle of a situation. I believe that’s the point RepMan was making to some extent.

  12. Med supply guy, you missed my nuance. I said if the JetBlue CEO had been media trained by competent PR counsel, he would have known NOT to over promise and under deliver. That’s exactly what he did when he said his flights would be back to normal by Saturday….and they weren’t. That destroyed his personal credibility. If a passenger can’t trust his or her airline, he or she will choose an alternative. This is ALL about image and reputation, med supply guy, and external PR counsel could have Neeleman helped in advance

  13. I think it’s important to note that Neeleman didn’t say he didn’t need PR. What he said was they didn’t need an outside consultant to provide PR.
    You can judge based on their reactions these past days whether their head of corporate communications, Jenny Dervin is doing a good job or not. I’d say that so far it’s been a remarkable performance.

  14. one more note to add. i think by writing this post, you justified what neeleman said about needing pr, and here’s why.
    jetblue is a great example of a company that built itself by focusing on the right areas and executing on its strategy. when you break it down, the airline industry comed down to getting john doe from point a to point b in the cheapest, safest, most efficient way possible. jetblue did all of those things and offered other “value adds” like TV’s, leather seats, snacks, etc. and the good pr followed. they had a great name and a following- and didn’t use a pr firm to get there, and a pr firm could have not done anything more for this airline.
    take all of that and throw it out b/c of a series of errors resulting from an ice storm. so even if they had the greatest pr machine in the world getting them feature after feature (which they did on their own) and building up their reputation and differentiating them (which they did on their own) all of that money would have been wasted b/c of this.
    that tells me they made a smart decision not hiring a pr firm and based on their track record, i bet they recover from this the way that tylenol did in the famous case study you like to site.

  15. have to disagree with you repman. the fact that jetblue did/didn’t have a pr firm didn’t factor into this disaster one bit. the pr firm would not have been on those planes making the passengers happy and would not have been assisting the airport employees in freeing up the gates.
    instead, they would have had a crisis plan in place that would have included all the boiler plate items of admitting fault, having the ceo be the spokesperson and the face of the company, telling people they are being proactive in fixing the problem, etc etc. and guess what? they did ALL of that without outside pr counsel.
    this had nothing to do with pr and everything to do with an airline’s execution. jetblue’s internal pr staff did the same thing an outside firm would have counseled. they have done well in the past and im sure they will come out of this, even without “outside pr counsel” as you put it.
    by the way repman, since you make general statements about what went wrong, on the pr side, what SPECIFICALLY should they have done differently.

  16. Fix the infrastructure and the good airlines/brands will rise above, no pun intended: The communication systems and procedures now in place in the industry are about as sophisticated as two tin cans and a string. Airlines are in poor communication with other officials, such as airport operators, exacerbating bad decisions. Economics play a real role, too: Taking a flight back to the terminal is all but heresy, as doing so sets off a number of eventualities: slots get lost, pilot work hours get reset, etc. All of this has to get fixed.
    Of course, JetBlue has made some bad biz decisions that weighed on its bottom line ahead of this crisis, and poor financials beget poor customer service, I’ve noticed. Those decisions include going to more than one model of plane (increased maintenance and pilot-training costs), spending/expanding too fast, etc.
    I think JetBlue will persevere. But I think that for a long time customers will choose to fly the carrier based mainly on price rather than any other factor. And note: JetBlue prices are rising.
    The gap between JetBlue and its Platonic Ideal, Southwest, is widening. It may never close.