Lessons from the JetBlue Media Meltdown

So I was on a plane the day after JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater pulled his Howard Beale (Network) imitation – "I'm as mad as Hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and freaked out over a rude passenger.

Before the dust settled, I can tell you the flight attendants I chatted with were not too thrilled to get that kind of attention. Frankly, if you travel a lot, you see almost as many rude flight attendants as cranky, rude fliers.

By the time I landed, Slater had become a folk hero of sorts and a very good airline (unlike the one I was flying on) got its nose bloodied for no fault of its own.

It’s too early to tell what kind of image damage JetBlue will suffer but what is remarkable is the traditional and new media response to Slater's antics.

I’ve had time to mull some fears and concerns I see ahead for the media business because for a moment there I was reacting like a traditional media guy but today I’m thinking – okay, Slater is being hailed as a hero but JetBlue could also come out ahead as well.

And, the concern that all of us in a world of social networking – artists, radio stations, streamers -- are just this far away from having to deal with a nutcase that can gather social media support by just – well, creating a Facebook page for starters.

In the case of the “Freakin’ Flier” as The New York Post called Slater, instantaneously a Facebook page went up that quickly got over 50,000 fans to support him. There was a “Free Steven Slater” page, PayPal fundraising and sites that compared Slater to pop music stars seeking to make him more popular.

Traditional media including television hardly knew which way to go – you could sense they went with it for ratings but part of them knew they were cheating on the facts. What Slater did was dangerous (could have killed a worker on the tarmac) and socially beyond inconsiderate to his passengers, his co-workers and an excellent employer. Yet there was more to this story than the incident. What about the nerve it hit?

I even felt sorry for the crummy airline I was flying and their employees. To butcher the song “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” -- if extolling Slaters virtues is wrong, how do I turn out being right?

In the radio business what happens when a singer is trashed or embarrassed beyond criticism of his or her work? Or when a local radio station has to face an “KXXX Sucks” social network page that can be easily accessed by media buyers on a Google search?

If it hasn’t already happened, it will.

My experience with the next generation is that they are not a mean generation. They spy – alright. But they are never going to go for attack politics. It doesn’t work for them. In fact, I believe their response to the freakin’ flight attendant is more youthful curiosity and angst than glorification of a bad dude.

It's a social networking expression of outrage.

And consistent with their generation, Gen Y will forget this guy faster than they are forgetting MySpace. This is important to keep in mind when responding to unjustified attacks in an age of instant social revolution.

JetBlue has kept its corporate mouth shut about this issue – probably on the advice of legal but maybe even because they are just smart enough to understand some of the things we’ve discussed here.

Nothing on their Facebook page and only three meaningless comments on Twitter.

And all this from a corporation that is very skilled in using both.

If your station is attacked or if a new age Randy Michaels sets up shop in your face on the most meaningful social networks, do you attack back?

In the pre-social network case of Michaels vs. yours truly, I did fight back and publicized everything he said and did as unfavorable as I felt it was. After all, he was the biggest, most powerful CEO in radio at the time. In the end he lost his job and his company bought my company as part of a settlement to drop my counter suit.

But, not responding can also be effective – don’t give the enemy any more publicity than they deserve. It’s risky – lots of radio station formats used to get attacked head on in past decades and they almost always lost their frontrunner's status. It’s hard ground to protect.

What to do?

The most important thing is what the JetBlue case teaches us and it is right before our eyes – yet it has not been fully noted.

JetBlue is considered to be a great operator. Consumer friendly. Communicates with its customers. Does right by them (each passenger on Slater’s flight will get a $100 coupon on JetBlue for having to put up with his mouth and actions).

That’s it.

Build a fine reputation because social media cannot make you that which you are not and cannot break you when renegades decide to put up a page.

Putting up a page is just a thing – something we do in our world of social networking.

But doing right by customers and audiences using social networking as a tool buys you valuable capital.

Ad Age quoted Steve Rubel, Senior VP-Director of Insights at Edelman Digital, as saying:

"JetBlue has done a good job of building a tremendous amount of relationship capital with the online community by embracing new digital platforms and communicating with people through them so they might not have to answer as many questions about the details of this incident. When a company puts itself out there as a company adept and active in social media, it gains social capital that it can cash in later on in a crisis or legal situation."

In the end, it's not so much about JetBlue.

It's about an angry public that now has a new "going postal" phrase ("sliding the chute") to let off steam about shabby treatment of employees! And, now they have ways -- fast and far reaching ways -- of taking their response public without the impediments and filters of traditional media.

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