IIn what quickly became compared to an air-travel version of the Valentine’s Day Massacre, hundreds of JetBlue passengers were stranded on the John F. Kennedy International Airport tarmac for up to nine hours on Feb. 14, 2007, after a massive winter storm crippled the airline’s operations. The situation turned from bad to worse when the disruption prompted a domino effect of delays and cancellations around the country, in turn leaving airports filled with irate passengers who definitely weren’t giving JetBlue the benefit of the doubt. Thus, the company’s communications team found itself faced with a monumental crisis that, in order to be upended, would require a fast-active, proactive response that reached all of its affected stakeholders.  

The communications team immediately identified three objectives in handling the crisis:

• Protect the airline’s reputation;
• Respond to all media inquiries without delay to become a credible source of information about the crisis; and,
• Convey a message of sincere regret and compassion to audiences.

Each of these objectives was paired with strategies to ensure their success: The team maintained an ongoing open dialogue with all stakeholders and empowered employees to be sources of information through constant internal updates; accepted responsibility and issued an immediate apology, sans finger-pointing; made company spokespeople available for media interviews 24/7 in the days following the crisis; and, ultimately, established a Customer Bill of Rights. In addition to these traditional tactics, the team leveraged the power of social media to communicate with audiences directly, posting an apology video of then-CEO David Neeleman on the company Web site and YouTube, as well as monitoring and responding to blog conversations.

While the crisis unfolded over a period of five days, the outcome has had an ongoing effect on the JetBlue brand. Never uttering a single “no comment,” the team maintained composure under harsh media scrutiny, accepting responsibility and using their new Bill of Rights to regain customers’ trust and business. In terms of measurement, the proof is in the recommendations: Since the crisis, JetBlue has been awarded accolades for its customer service and, within one month of the crisis, customer bookings were back in line with expectations. Mission accomplished.