JetBlue Seeks PR Shop to Help It Out of Toilet

But Oil Prices Could Keep Airline From Hiring Agency as It Deals With Latest Crisis

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NEW YORK ( -- It was almost as if it saw the toilet seat coming.

JetBlue, one-time darling of the skies, has flown solo while handling a host of recent PR potshots, most notably those resulting from stranded passengers cooling their heels for days during an ice storm.
JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin
JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin

But behind the scenes, it has been quietly searching for a crisis-communications agency since December and hopes to have one in place by next month.

It's a good thing, too, given its latest PR black eye, dealt by a New York City man suing the airline for more than $2 million. He claims a JetBlue pilot made him give up his seat to a flight attendant and travel on the toilet for more than three hours on a February flight from San Diego to New York.

Jenny Dervin, a spokeswoman for JetBlue, would not discuss how many or which agencies are being considered for the crisis-communications assignment. She said the company is "focusing heavily on experience, not just with airlines but with brand as well as operational crises, and a solid working knowledge born through experience of new media, because that's where the story breaks and where the story lives."

Barrels of help
But there's one potential problem. Ms. Dervin said the price of oil will be a determining factor in choosing an agency; if it continues to rise, the likelihood of hiring one will decline sharply. She said this creates a Catch 22 because communicating the effect rising oil prices have on the airline is something an agency could assist in.

"The rising price of oil is adding enormous cost pressure on every department within the company," she said. "We believe [hiring an agency] is the right thing to do, however, we also have to protect our cash balance and the bottom line."

As for the airline's apparent toilet-class seating, JetBlue has not commented and said it does not discuss issues involving litigation. Ms. Dervin said the airline is conducting its own investigation. Internally, it ran a story on its daily e-newsletter as well as on its intranet home page explaining to employees its position on the situation.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also looking into the matter.

But Len Biegel, president of Biegel Group, a Washington-based crisis management and training agency, said JetBlue blundered by not responding at the outset -- lawsuit or no.

Communications breakdown
"If you're a company dealing with the public ... you need to put a human face on these situations," he said. "You always comment, even if you can't say much. But be part of the story. ... Don't look like you're turning your back."

Until last February's ice-storm debacle in the Northeast, JetBlue was, for the most part, in good standing with consumers. But its breakdown in communications with trapped travelers during that two-day stretch earned it a spot near the top of the blacklist.

Set against that backdrop, its new $15 million ad campaign, "Happy Jetting," seems a bit, well, dissonant. Two commentators to a story regarding the JetBlue campaign on said the push neatly skirts service problems with the airline, leading one Miami poster to write: "JetBlue is worthless to me as a business traveler until they get the basics right."

Perhaps PR should have had some of the investment that went into advertising? Ms. Dervin concedes the airline hasn't done a good job of scaling its internal growth with that of its growth in business. "We are still a very small corporate-communications department [of nine people] and a very small marketing department. [And] now is the time to make the decision whether or not to hire more crew members to assist you with that, or seek external expertise. In this case, the way to go is to partner with an expert in their field."

Right out of the gate the agency will be charged with evaluating the airline's current external and internal crisis communications strategy, specifically "how do we use new media in getting the information out and be available for reporters and crew members?"

Unless, of course, it's first called on to clean up another bathroom incident.
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