In Crisis Management, Public Relations, Reputation

JetBlue iStockYour employees ARE your company to most of your customers.  They are your brand ambassadors.  They represent your brand every day and when they behave badly they undo every marketing dollar you spend.

Consider the case of JetBlue and the public image pilot John Manwaring is giving their brand.  Earlier this week, less than 12 hours before he was scheduled to fly out of Logan International Airport, Manwaring was arrested and charged with possession of heroin.  So instead of piloting a JetBlue plane at 7:30 a.m. the next morning, he was awaiting an appearance in municipal court pleading not guilty to the charge.

This isn’t the first time in recent history that JetBlue employees have tarnished the brand with conduct involving drugs.  Less than two months ago, four JetBlue employees were arrested for using their airport security clearance to allegedly smuggle $417,000 of drug money past the TSA.  This incident also took place at Logan Airport.

How’s that for putting a face on a brand that prides itself on its humanity and connection?  What’s JetBlue’s next move?  I like this piece of advice from Rob Waldeck from Boston marketing firm Holland-Mark: “Any brand’s reputation can be tarnished by a single employee’s behavior, but a company’s response determines if there is long-term impact.”

So, how does JetBlue safeguard a 15 year old reputation built on founder David Neeleman’s goal of bringing humanity back to air travel?  By taking action.  First, and foremost, they need to separate their fate from Manwaring’s.  Second, they need to use their mission as the touchstone for further actions.  Remember the Golden Rule of Crisis Management: In crisis go back to mission.  If JetBlue’s mission is safe, affordable flights with a human touch, that needs to be the backbone of their messaging and their actions.

The Manwaring saga will be long and painful, as his case wends its way through the legal system.  He claims his only “sin” was trying to buy sex (not drugs) from the women with whom he was arrested.  But regardless of the ultimate outcome, the airline needs to separate its flight path from Manwaring’s until his guilt or innocence is established.

Meanwhile, JetBlue has got to face the public’s inevitable perception that it’s lax on drugs.   They need to demonstrate their commitment to “humanity” and safety by making lots of noise about their intolerance for substance abuse among employees.  They need to put their drug and alcohol testing programs front and center to assure the public that no one touches their planes while being impaired by substances.

JetBlue also need to launch an extensive internal investigation of the issue, one that delves into their culture to determine if anything is settling the stage for these kinds of incidents.  They need to do these things for the sake of their reputation.  For the sake of their customers’ peace of mind.  And for the overall safety of the flying public.

I know this advice sounds harsh, but right now the behavior of a few wayward employees is threatening the health of a company with 13,040,000 other brand ambassadors.  Those employees need to know what the company stands for and  the public needs to know what the company’s prepared to do for them.  That’s not just good reputation protection.  That’s good business.


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