PR Heroes Of The Hurricanes

Back-to-back hurricanes Harvey and Irma were unprecedented in their impact, destroying lives and homes, wreaking billions in damage, and knocking other news out of the headlines (a minor challenge for the media and public relations professions.) But the storms of September also brought some good news. Experts tell us that the U.S. is improving in how we prepare for and respond to hurricanes, for one thing. An A1 story in The New York Times cites better “weather forecasting, evacuation policies and hurricane-resistant building practices” as factors in the relatively low numbers of deaths and injuries in Houston and Southern Florida.
And like any disaster, the hurricanes created heroes, from first responders to small businesses. Here are some of the reputation “winners” born amid the chaos of the storms.

Mattress Mack cushions the blow

Houston furniture impresario Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale scored early PR points by opening two of his showrooms to shelter people who were displaced by Hurricane Harvey. He seized national attention with a Facebook video inviting all who could safely make it to one of his Gallery Furniture stores to come and even bring their pets. McIngvale has navigated these waters before; he offered shelter to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Clearly he’s a local businessman with a flair for PR and promotion, as well as a deep commitment to community. McIngvale’s bold gesture came in contrast to the response of Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen. Osteen was criticized for not opening his 52,000-seat megachurch to flood victims until Monday, after a weekend of bad press and shifting explanations. He could learn a thing or two from Mattress Mack.

JetBlue caps costs

Airlines are typically victims of a weather disaster, or occasionally, villains who are forced to make things worse by canceling flights. As Irma bore down on southern Florida, United was criticized for fares on flights out of the state that cost as much as $1000. But many carriers made news by capping fares instead. Those were led by JetBlue, who offered seats out of South Florida for a gentle $99 and waived fees for passengers having to change flights because of the storm. JetBlue’s move was followed by a response from Delta, which announced it wouldn’t charge more than $399 for tickets on flights to and from southern Florida and the Caribbean, including first-class seats. Of course, tickets were scarce by the time these announcements were made, but a few airlines did earn some reputation cred for their efforts.

The American Red Cross is there

The hurricanes were both an enormous test and a branding opportunity for the ARC, which has weathered some PR challenges due to questions about what percentage of donations flows to helping disaster victims. Bolstered by third parties – from former president Barack Obama to Beyoncé, the organization met both the logistical trial and the PR challenge head-on with transparency about how donations are used in major media interviews by CEO Gail McGovern. For an excellent take on the importance of local disaster communications, check out this column by Houston PR professional Jennifer Evans.

Everyday people step up

Most poignant and powerful of all might have been the stories of everyday heroes like the human chain of Houston apartment residents who helped a woman in labor make it through rising flood waters to be driven to a hospital. There were countless stories about regular people who went out of their way or even placed themselves at risk to help a neighbor.

JetBlue’s Response to Pilot Breakdown: Light On Crisis PR Strategy?


All airlines are prone to rough PR weather, but JetBlue seems to have more than its share. Maybe it’s because during a time of rapidly deteriorating expectations, many of us still expect more of JetBlue. It’s that rare industry bird, the customer-friendly airline. An oxymoron.

So when it goes off-course, that’s news. There was the 2007 Valentine’s Day Massacre in which ice storms forced it to ground flights at the last minute. Hundreds of passengers were stranded, and then-CEO Dave Neeleman’s national apology tour helped repair the reputation damage. In 2011, it faced the PR fallout caused by  flight attendant Stephen Slater’s famous exit. Both were serious incidents, but Slater’s actions, at least, had elements of humor, and the airline’s response was measured.

There’s nothing funny about what happened this week. A JetBlue pilot suffered a mental breakdown and had to be restrained by crew and passengers in mid-flight. Though the plane made a safe unscheduled landing, it was clear that JetBlue’s own captain had posed a security threat to all onboard. He shouted incoherently about “Jesus, September 11, Iraq, Iran and terrorists” and banged on the cockpit door demanding entry after a quick-thinking copilot locked him out.

JetBlue’s crisis response succeeded in that it got the mechanics right. Its blog referred to a “medical situation” on the flight and reported the safe landing in Texas (though with few details.) It responded in real time to questions and comments on Facebook and Twitter as the story unfolded, and CEO Dave Barger gave a live exclusive interview to Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” one day later.

But the messaging was a bit off. Immediately after the incident the airline seemed to minimize it. Meanwhile, as the real story of the pilot’s breakdown emerged from passengers, the media accounts grew. “This Is Your Captain Freaking,” blared The New York Post. Web comments piled up. Boldfaced names like @piersmorgan piled on.
JetBlue scrambled to do all the right things for the passengers on the plane, offering refunds, vouchers, and personal outreach to passengers on Tuesday.

And though Barger’s candor and accessibility were admirable, he spent most of his airtime defending the Captain, personally vouching for his record as a “consummate professional,” and praising the crew who helped at 35,000 feet. It’s understandable, and the heroism of the copilot and passengers is a good story (as is JetBlue’s status as the first airline to bulletproof cockpit doors.) But the first rule of crisis management is to accept responsibility and acknowledge the seriousness of the loss or risk.

In defending the pilot so vigorously, rather than stressing how seriously it takes the situation, Barger veered a bit from the crisis playbook. Freakish though the incident was, the airline should take responsibility for the situation and call it for what it was, a grave security threat. It then needs to commit to a full investigation of the incident. It has done all three, but under pressure, and after Barger’s “consummate professional” quote was picked up by media.

Barger might take a lesson from the Neeleman era. After the 2007 crisis, JetBlue pioneered a “Customer Bill of Rights” to ensure that such a massive grounding of flights wouldn’t happen again. It showed real leadership within the industry when it could have hidden behind tough weather and unanticipated events.

The case of the erratic captain has shone a light on mental health standards for all airline pilots and possible gaps in FAA screening measures. Maybe JetBlue should lead once again by pressing for a full review of those measures, on top of its own investigation into the captain’s record and its screening process for stressed employees. Then it can take credit for teamwork, training, and, yes, those reinforced cockpit doors.

How To Turn Bad Publicity Into Good PR

There are those who think any PR is good PR, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s just plain bad.

Faced with withering reviews for its plan to separate its DVD and streaming businesses into two distinct units, Netflix has canceled Qwikster. This latest plot twist is a bit reminiscent of Gap’s unveiling of that infamous new logo. The negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. Though at first it seemed like a miss for Gap, many brand-watchers think it made the brand more relevant than it had been in a long while.

Netflix doesn’t suffer from lack of currency, and it’s a bit early to tell if it can woo back irate customers. (If Reed Hastings’ recent New York Times magazine interview is any indication, I’d say they still have some work to do.) But bad publicity can, paradoxically, wake up a brand’s loyalists. And there are ways to turn a PR failure into a net gain. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.

Apologize. If offense has been given or customer safety or satisfaction threatened, a prompt apology is necessary. And it shouldn’t be drafted by lawyers. To have teeth, a mea culpa should be swift and sincere, and it should take responsibility. One of my favorite public apologies is the widely viewed video of Domino’s Pizza President Patrick Doyle after the employee stunt that made us all lose our appetites in 2009. Doyle, and the Domino’s brand, had an advantage as the victim of a disgusting hoax. But as brand crises go, the stakes were pretty high, and the company delivered in a way that helped feed our natural sympathy.

The mistake Netflix made, by contrast, was in wrapping a half-hearted mea culpa with additional news that was bound to anger customers. Not good.

Fix the problem. Better yet, be part of a larger solution. The classic lemons-to-lemonade strategy after a misstep is to be part of the fix for everyone. Mattel set a new standard when it announced enhanced product inspection and supplier audits following massive product recalls of toys made in China. JetBlue also raised the airline industry bar with its “Passenger Bill of  Rights,” a kind of flight plan to prevent incidents like the one that buffeted its reputation on Valentine’s Day 2008.

Share your learnings. Office Depot, a client of my former firm, took advantage of its own experience weathering successive hurricanes at its Delray Beach, Florida headquarters over a period of years. It turned adversity to advantage with a PR campaign that focused on disaster preparation and management for small businesses, – a key customer segment.

Stay the course. Sometimes, despite a public rush to judgment, a brand is right. Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of annihalating coverage, after its luxury cruise liner resumed calls at Labadee, Haiti shortly after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts and passengers agree that supporting survivors with both supplies and commerce was the right move.

Fight back. That’s what Taco Bell did when it was slapped with a lawsuit by a customer who had a beef with the meat content of its tacos. It jumped into the food fight, threatening a countersuit, and launching a response through executive videos, a statement on its website, and a major market ad campaign about ingredient quality. The customer suit was quietly dropped.

Make good. Sometimes it’s better to pay – financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement – to protect a brand’s reputation. For many companies, this also comes down to empowering retail or ground-level employees to spot and nip problems in the bud. If a Delta attendant had been able to waive excess luggage fees for returning U.S. veterans, the airline could have saved itself loads of bad reputation baggage after the servicemen took their complaints to YouTube.

The Best PR Moves Of 2010

This year brought well-publicized disasters, misbehaving celebrities, and corporate goofs. But, which individuals and companies communicated most skillfully during 2010? Here are our nominees.

Wikileaks. Whether Julian Assange is a hero or a “high-tech terrorist” depends on your point of view. But in 2010 Wikileaks perfected a media relations strategy for maximum impact for the release of thousands of  leaked diplomatic cables. Previously, Wikileaks had either trickled out its materials too gradually, or overwhelmed the media with an overlarge outpouring of classified information. But, in November, it seemed to get things just right. Its strategy was simple:  simultaneous publication of the leaked materials by five highly credible news organizations. The result was domination of news headlines for days.

Jon Stewart. Only Stewart could draw over 250,000 to a rally that started as a joke. Not only did his “Rally to Restore Sanity” beat Glenn Beck’s crowd by a surprising margin, but this year, Stewart showed he can do what no one else seems to be able to — bust legislative gridlock. His public shaming of the senators blocking the passage of the 9/11 first responders bill actually got the bill through. It earned him acknowledgement from the White House and a comparison to broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow in a glowing New York Times piece. Stewart still insists he’s not political, but his influence is formidable. This guy really gets things done. Jon Stewart in 2012?

The Tea Party. On the other side of the aisle, the Tea Party was able to cool some serious internal divisions to speak out with one voice. Despite some candidates who landed in hot water (“I’m not a witch” will live in PR infamy), most of the party’s key players spoke and behaved not like typical politicians, but like real people – mad as hell, and determined to do something about it. More importantly, its message was never diluted. A full-strength focus on government spending brought the party credibility and congressional seats.

The Chilean government. Its flawless handling of the rescue of 33 miners showed not just leadership on the part of  Sebastian Pinera and his government, but real storytelling genius and media relations savvy. The final rescue scenario was better than any mini-series, complete with a happy ending.

Gap. Yes, I know its logo fiasco looked like a bad fit and a PR blunder, but the company’s ultimate decision to return to the original iconic identity made it more relevant than it’s been in years, at least to a narrow slice of influentials. Not a model PR campaign, but a good example of turning bad publicity into good will.

Conan O’Brien. He started the year by walking away from one of the most coveted gigs in television, and agreeing to a seven-month exile before the premiere of his new show on…basic cable? But Team Coco made clever use of the hiatus. Their social media strategy was genius. His hilarious Twitter feed was vintage Conan, while kicking off a string of updates that kept him in front of fans. Coverage from his “Legally Prohibited” comedy tour ensured his relevance until the debut of his third act this September.

JetBlue. 2010 was a tough year for travel companies. Start with a grounded economy, add higher fares and fewer services, throw in an eruption from an unpronounceable volcano, and top it off with a security controversy. JetBlue not only came out on top again in passenger surveys, but it handled flight attendant Steven Slater‘s unexpected, and highly publicized, exit from the job with PR savvy and typical JetBlue cool.

Facebook. Despite another privacy crisis in 2010, Facebook turned the potential reputation nightmare of the unflattering film “The Social Network” into an opportunity for a charm offensive on the part of founder Mark Zuckerberg. Reaching 500 million members and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year isn’t such a bad way to close out 2010.

Next up: Worst PR Moves of 2010.

The Steven Slater Effect: Has JetBlue Lost Its Cool?

Steven Slater’s slide to freedom took less than a day to establish him as a folk hero. The reasons are obvious. Who hasn’t wanted to make an, um, emergency exit from a miserable job with that kind of flourish?

It was just one employee who lost his cool, in a big way. But did his exit signal a downhill slide for JetBlue, once the coolest and most PR-savvy of carriers? Sure, he struck a blow for working people who are mad as hell. The drama drew a huge fan community on Facebook and a deluge of online anecdotes from people with similar tales. (My favorite was Gawker‘s invitation for readers to share their most outrageous “I quit” moments.) Can a reality show be far off?

But, Slater is also a symbol of the sad and sorry state of the airline industry. In contrast to US Airways’ “Sully” Sullenberger,  Slater is the anti-Sully, an icon for an industry buffeted by a perfect storm of recession, consolidation, and commoditization. Though on the other side of the counter, Slater’s drama is similar to that of Dave Carroll, who became an Internet meme when he recorded the music video, “United Breaks Guitars.” Each tapped into something nearly everyone has experienced.

But the villain here is the workplace. What sent Slater over the top, and down the chute, was reportedly job stress. The problem is, this isn’t supposed to happen on JetBlue, the airline that promises a different, and better, flying experience. Its planes, seats, onboard experience, and – most importantly – its culture, was what set it apart from the pack. When the airline was launched, it recruited flight attendants from other industries in order to underscore that promise (and, presumably, to avoid a union.)

JetBlue had to know that Slater could have injured or even killed ground crew workers with his stunt. His actions made some passengers wonder if the next rogue incident could happen when the plane was actually in the air. Not so funny. And, since his meltdown, there’s been considerable doubt cast on Slater’s version of events. He’s not Howard Beale. Instead, he’s a real guy with real problems.

To its credit, JetBlue handled the meltdown, and reputation threat, with style. First, it quietly offered a $100 gift certificate to each of the flight’s passengers, to compensate them for the “disruption.” Then, it acknowledged what the rest of the world was buzzing about..but briefly, and with a light touch. In a blog post titled “Some Times The Weird News Is About Us”, it poked gentle fun at all the attention the exit triggered, acknowledging that “it may feed your inner Office Space.” But most importantly, the company took advantage of the incident to offer public recognition to “2,300 fantastic, awesome and professional Inflight Crew members for delivering the JetBlue Experience you’ve come to expect of us.”  (No word on whether Slater was among those 2,300.)

Talk about emergency management. Although JetBlue may have lost some of its brand luster during the economic headwinds of the past few years, its response was true to its personality, and helped protect it from the PR fallout. As for the impact on the industry’s reputation, I agree with Sara Keagle. A flight attendant and blogger, Keagle suggests in a Wall Street Journal post that the Slater effect will be a kind of wake-up call for the traveling public. Don’t disobey the airline’s rules and policies. And, don’t tick off the guy whose finger is on the emergency chute.

Wall Street’s Apology – So Far, Just PR?

Two former banking executives got another workout last week. So did the “apology PR” movement. This time it was Citibank ex-CEO Charles Prince and former director Robert Rubin. Under the hot glare of cameras – and the even more heated glares from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, each expressed the most sincere-sounding contrition to date on the financial mess.

But, the Wall Street chieftains still have a lot to learn about apology communications. Morgan Stanley’s John Mack offered up a statement of regret in February. Others have released carefully worded apologies, or non-apologies, since most are short on specifics. (An exception is that of former Bear Sterns chief executive James Cayne, who expressed regret and personal responsibility after his firm folded. Losing $900 million of your own cash will do that.)

The bankers might do well to look at JetBlue’s 2007 response to the Valentine’s Day PR storm that nearly grounded the company. Founder and former CEO David Neeleman’s mea culpa might be the perfect corporate apology. It didn’t happen a year later under legal or regulatory duress. It was offered in many forms, from a major media apology tour, to a YouTube video. Most importantly, it was timely, heartfelt, and part of a larger plan to prevent future incidents.

By contrast, the Wall Street apologies are more like the muttered regret of a misbehaving child being dragged through the motions by reproving parents. What I find most amusing is the groupspeak. For an industry known for the healthy egos at the top, there’s an awful lot of royal “we’s” being used. As the Goldman Sachs fraud investigation ripples through world markets, we can expect even more, um, sharing of responsibility, and maybe more creative mea culpas.

Yet, an authentic apology shouldn’t point the finger at subordinates, ratings agencies, interest rates, homeowners, regulators, or anyone else. One of the first rules of crisis PR is to take responsibility. The executive who stops the buck will, paradoxically, see his personal stock go up, liability notwithstanding.

But the most glaring omission here is the eye to the future. That’s what Wall Street really owes Main Street. Not just heartfelt statements of regret. Or admissions of responsibility by top management. Or generous philanthropy. Those amount to nothing if the banking industry continues to oppose basic financial reform measures like, say, those covering derivatives. The buck – and the spin – stops there.