By Rupal Parekh and Michael Bush
At a time when every brand wants to master social media, what’s a marketer that’s already pretty darn good at it to do when it’s muzzled by lawyers?
That’s precisely the conundrum JetBlue seems to be facing amid the media sensation that is Steve Slater, who, shortly after noon Monday, when JetBlue flight 1052 arrived at the gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy International from Pittsburgh International, quit his job dramatically: by exiting via the inflatable evacuation slide. For a brand that’s become known for its customer service and is a leader in the social-media space for its rapid responsiveness and transparency, JetBlue has had little to say on a matter that’s bringing it tons of PR buzz.
As the widely reported story goes, a fight with a rude passenger was the last straw for Mr. Slater. He got on the in-flight PA system to drop some expletives, grabbed a couple beers to chug after his ride down the exit chute, and walked off the tarmac and to his car. He then drove to his beachfront home in Rockaway, N.Y., only to be arrested shortly after on criminal mischief and reckless endangerment charges. With bail set at just $2,500, it’s probably just a matter of time before Mr. Slater will be out of jail and working the late-night talk-show circuit.
Overnight, a slew of Facebook pages cropped up dedicated to the flight attendant. A public page for Steven Slater already has nearly 50,000 fans as of press time, while a "Free Steven Slater" page approaches 15,000 fans. Then there’s a "WWSSD?" page (What Would Steve Slater Do), a Steve Slater PayPal fund and, maybe the most telling of his rapidly rising star, the "Can Steven Slater Get More Fans Than Justin Bieber?" page.
While brand Slater has taken off, brand JetBlue is doing its best to keep its distance.
Take a look at JetBlue’s Facebook page and it’s as if the incident never happened — there’s not one mention of the incident. On Twitter, there were just three tweets acknowledging the situation, two of them blunt responses to a CNN reporter along the lines of, "We will not comment further on ongoing investigations."
Even its head of marketing and avid Twitter user Marty St. George (@martysg) has been mum, while JetBlue’s lead marketing agency, Mullen, declined to comment (as did resident social-media expert Edward Boches).
When Ad Age asked the airline to comment for this story, a spokesman said, "I’m afraid we aren’t able to assist you (or any other media outlet) with additional information at this time."
"One of the difficulties they are facing is they have to reconcile the contradiction between the public’s expectations that they are going to get the full story from JetBlue immediately, especially based on JetBlue’s history," said Jonathan Bellinger, VP-social media strategy at Omnicom Group’s Ketchum.
Indeed, the airline was one of the first companies that used social media to be transparent and address customers’ concerns and compliments alike via the web. In so doing, it has put a lot of thought into how it structures things such as its Twitter presence, which currently is a seven-person operation with participation from multiple disciplines including corporate communications and its loyalty marketing program TrueBlue. In a wide-ranging interview with Ad Age last month, JetBlue’s Mr. St. George said, "Fundamentally this is a brand with a customer base that skews young and affluent; they are on social media, and we want to be where our customers are."
Said Mr. Bellinger: "Right now they are probably trying to reconcile that desire they are seeing from the public and that precedent they’ve set with pretty strict restrictions being forced upon them by the FAA and maybe Homeland Security and whoever else is involved. The expectation among myself and any other consumer, based on their own precedent, is that they are going to talk about it, and that has to be a tricky situation to navigate it. They have no choice, and it’s probably frustrating to them on the inside because they are used to responding to this type of thing very quickly and in a very transparent way."
While Mr. Slater’s actions have been overwhelmingly met with cheers from the public, the legal ramifications of his behavior are numerous. "People are laughing in support of this guy, but as much as they would like to keep that humor about it, they have to worry about lawsuits," said Michael J. McSunas, a lawyer with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, P.C.
Mr. McSunas said that if JetBlue is observed to be taking the matter lightly on Twitter or in discussions with the media, it could be used against the company by Mr. Slater or the Federal Aviation Authority. "He can say the company’s position was that it wasn’t a serious issue. … The FAA could say this is a major breach and you’re not taking it seriously and are making light of it." It’s possible that passengers on the flight could bring legal action too.
"I guess they could say they suffered emotional trauma. Whether they’d be successful or not is a different story," said Mr. McSunas. "I would advise a client to not necessarily address the matter on Twitter or Facebook, but if people are posting about it, respond with something like, ‘Joking aside, this is a serious issue, and our passengers safety and security is the number one priority for us.’"
For all the tension the incident is bringing JetBlue, experts say that, in the end, Mr. Slater is likely to bring mostly positive attention to the brand.
"Usually when a flight attendant gets called out it’s for something they have done wrong that pissed off passengers," said Mr. Bellinger. "But when an attendant does something where passengers say they wish they would do the same thing at their own job, that’s great. It’s a net positive story for the brand."
Noted Steve Rubel, senior VP-director of Insights at Edelman Digital, "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."