After flight attendant Steven Slater took his storied slide to freedom from a JetBlue aircraft at JFK International Airport August 9, the company won praise for its surprisingly understated response to the story.
As a strategy to defuse an immediate crisis, JetBlue’s reaction belongs in a textbook—and in the contingency plan for any organization that might suddenly face a wave of embarrassing publicity. What’s less clear is whether JetBlue, or any other company in the same position, knows how to prevent the next Slater-style episode before it happens.
The story was reported widely: After taking too much abuse from one passenger too many, Slater cussed out the passenger over the onboard PA system, grabbed two beers from the beverage cart, deployed the emergency slide, and departed the scene.
“What would you do if you were JetBlue?” was the question on the lips of Madison Avenue image-makers. The company drew early criticism for its silence in the 48 hours after the incident. Then management published a 140-word blog item that stood as its entire response.
“Perhaps you heard a little story about one of our flight attendants?” the company asked in a post titled Sometimes the weird news is about us. “While we can’t discuss the details of what is an ongoing investigation, plenty of others have already formed opinions on the matter. Like, the entire Internet.”
JetBlue claimed it wasn’t commenting out of respect for Slater’s privacy, but “we just want to take this space to recognize our 2,300 fantastic, awesome, and professional in-flight crew members for delivering the JetBlue experience you’ve come to expect.”
Fast Company described the piece as “a wily little post, expertly done—mixing cheeky self-deprecation, ostensible privacy concerns, an apt and funny YouTube link (to the Office Space movie), and only the tiniest dose of PR pablum.” According to digital marketing agency Zeta Interactive, “sharply negative” media comments on JetBlue turned more positive overnight.
But even if the post was a PR home run, the airline only earns the sound of one hand clapping. The nagging question is whether JetBlue’s corporate culture contributed to the incident.
Slater “didn’t have a wingman,” said leadership speaker Rob Waldman, author of Don’t Fly Solo. “His flight attendants weren’t there for him. JetBlue wasn’t there for him. He had nobody to turn to and he reached his boiling point.” Had Slater had more support, Waldman told MSNBC Travel News, “this might have ended differently.”
Waldman’s comment points toward two conversations that have been going on in our industry. The first is the importance ofprograms that help keep employees engaged, but fall by the wayside when the economy tightens—and especially when meetings of all kinds are under attack.
The second is a growing body of research linking employees’ job satisfaction with the depth of a company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility. In a blog post earlier this year, sustainable events strategist Elizabeth Henderson pointed to as a potential trump card in the much-touted War for Talent. When a business is a good corporate citizen, the reward is a steadier, more stable work force
Unfortunately, even the most inspired CSR program or team development event won’t necessarily prevent Steven Slater’s unique brand of instability.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, Ontario, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.