Got the JetBlue Blues?

There is an important word in the term “we the web”. It’s WE. We’re in this together – we produce, we consume, we talk, we listen, we share, we respond, we apologize, we forgive. That’s WE the brand advocator (consumer) and we the brand guardian (company).

In crisis times not too long past, corporate leadership’s best efforts at contingency management was to post an official letter of apology on their website, contact as many PR houses and newsrooms as possible and hope that TV broadcasted appearances of groomed executives tritely rolling out the usual defensive expression of so called regret would in effect “manage the crisis”.

Such a response belonged to an era where consumers had no choice, hair clipper reviews, but to sit back and listen. Now in the age of digital convergence, we embody a “lean forward and participate” mentality, where consumers at very little cost and at considerable ease can share their thoughts and engage in a dialogue, not just in a one-to-one conversation with a brandowner, but with a whole community of peers who together actively debate the future of the brand.

The JetBlue meltdown last week is, in the history of crisis communications, monumental on many levels, not just because of JetBlue’s very human and sincerely apologetic on-line response, but because of the phenomenal, real-time sharing of experiences by the ordinary passengers held hostage by the airline.

Indeed, as the ice iced and de-iced on New York’s runways last week, JetBlue customers were posting photos from their phone on, uploading video on YouTube, posting to their blogs and even going so far as to create new anti-Jetblue blogs –

These are the heroes of consumer activism, of web 2.0 culture. What’s incredible is not these individual actions by themselves, but their rapid on-line distribution. It seems that millions of eyeballs all around the world came head to head with engaging consumer-generated content, before JetBlue even had the chance to utter blue. That’s the power of the writable hypertext web.

When the ice hits the fans, there isn’t the luxury of time, nor the option of one-way, “you-talk-we-listen” controlled communication. Hyperempowered global citizens are on your case and corporate survival is built on open and honest words, an exchange of dialogue, genuine and direct policy and the speed with which you can get your voice heard. A brand’s best tool of defense? The web.

JetBlue nearly got it right. CEO David Neeleman’s humble YouTube videocast and the email of apology sent to JetBlue e-subscribers with the opening line, “We are sorry and embarrassed, most of all we are deeply sorry.” ring as true as the heartfelt tales of freezing JetBlue customers. JetBlue’s subsequent creation of the Bill of Rights, offering solutions and further apologies has consequences not just for the Jetblue brand of tomorrow, but the future of the airline industry.

Their response has been honest and considered, but, much to their peril, they undervalued their customer’s digital competence to share their experiences in real-time. JetBlue, like many corporate giants, didn’t fully understand the power of a well thought out digital contingency plan. According to blogger Matt Linderman stuck at JFK, a lone JetBlue representative with a megaphone regularly shouted updates on flight times at boarding gates. To stranded customers he was the most powerful man in the room because he had the tool to communicate the most up-to-date information, (apparently their PA voice system was inaudible). JetBlue failed to recognize the Internet as the modern-day and more powerful megaphone.

The experience of a brand is not just its message, but what it means to be interacting with it on many fronts, both on and offline, but increasingly more online: products, environments, informational services, employees, online service oriented plug-ins etc. Had JetBlue had a better digital brand management strategy in place, they would have had the telephone numbers and emails of all those affected and the mechanisms in place to send text messages and frequent email updates to the communication tools – blackberrys, laptops, cell phones – of their mobile customers. Better prepared, and presumably they would also have posted updates on both an internal wiki for employees to read and their webpage for friends and families of aggrieved passengers. Their 1-800-number wouldn’t have been ringing off the hook; those desperate for information would already have received it via other medium.

Today, brands have to have a more accessible persona because much of the understanding a consumer has comes as the result of interaction, not traditional consumption. Brands need to have a coherent model of how the interactions they provide fit together in a way that supports the ideology of the brand and their customer’s digital adeptness.

I wasn’t stuck in a JetBlue plane on a tarmac for 11 hours last week. In fact, the last time I traveled with Jet Blue I laughed myself blue at all their humorous messages of affection. This simple interaction created an impression that lived up to the brand personality, but it wasn’t necessarily a real impression of what the brand actually is. Advertising serves a purposed, but time and effort spend creating mechanisms for on-and-offline accountability is more valuable.

Jet Blue isn’t perfect, but I believe it strives for excellence in all that it does. Last week it was simply too slow and unprepared to respond to incidents that their customers were quicker and better prepared to react to. Like many corporations used to sluggish formal communication policies, they’re learning the new rules of communication. The right thing at the right time in the right manner never mattered as much.

I like Jet Blue and I’m standing by them. I’m also standing by the JetBlue “hostages”. Let customers choose who to associate with through informed choice, not blind manipulation. Let those who have suffered the blues and been neglected receive appropriate attention and compensation. Let brands build (and police) online mechanisms to create meaningful, real-time consumer intimacy. Let the dialogue continue. Let’s all get to a better place. After all, WE are in this together.