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WestJet’s Holiday PR "Miracle" Goes Above and Beyond

Little-known (in the U.S.) airline WestJet has a reputation for fun and friendliness, and in the past, it’s come up with clever holiday PR initiatives. But this year WestJet really went the extra mile.

With the help of 150 employees and merchant partners, the airline made some pretty high-altitude holiday dreams come true for passengers on a flight from Toronto to Calgary, beautifully captured on video, of course. In the departure area, the travelers were asked about their wish lists, and, lo and behold, when they arrived, the very items they’d requested were sliding down the baggage ramp. One woman was moved to tears as she unwrapped her brand new digital camera. Pity the guy who said he needed “socks and underwear” as he watched one incredulous family rip the paper off its new flat-screen TV.

Naturally, not everyone who saw the video was as ecstatic as the passengers who scored an early Santa visit. Some criticized the rank materialism of the stunt, saying the gifts should have been purchased for the truly needy, in the spirit of the holiday. Others decried it as – surprise – nothing but a marketing campaign.

But WestJet had anticipated scroogelike reactions, so it came up with a way to promote social sharing. The airline promised that if it reached its goal of 200,000 views, it would pledge free flights to six partner charities. Within a week, the “Christmas Miracle” was seen over 21 million times. So, the real miracle of the video is how it so greatly exceeded the airline’s expectations. Here’s why it took off.

First, airlines are so far down in the reputation basement that almost anything that puts passengers first is a shocking and shareable moment. Second, the stunt was completely unexpected – as well as logistically challenging. Who would do such a thing? Finally, it’s a very visual event, and the video that recorded it is well done and truly moving.

I, too, would have loved to have seen more giving to those in need, rather than a randomly selected planeload of travelers. But if that had been the case, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it now, all these days later. (The trip also offered some reputation lift to partners like Best Buy, which was prominently featured in the video, at the best possible time.)

The interesting thing is that WestJet may not get more customers out of the stunt, even with the stratospheric viewing numbers that the video commanded. But think about how its employees and stakeholders feel. You can bet that morale is sky-high, and in a customer service business, that really counts.

Well done, WestJet. The only question among PR people is how it will meet soaring expectations for 2014. You can bet we’ll be watching.

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