Delta/Northwest merger means American and JetBlue had best manage their online reputation with fervor

Americas premier global airline.”

With the announcement of the confirmed Delta/Northwest merger the competition needs to surpass them online in order to maintain market share when this giant comes to life. No longer will an airline endure the costs of major hiccups without addressing issues immediately and creatively for the masses. Most importantly they need to amplify their online reputation now so when that fateful day comes and they are facing down “DeltaWest” their online branding and public image will have a solid transparent reputation that can stand-up to a fight.

We all remember the JetBlue nightmare. Stuck in a plane for hours on end as it sits on the tarmac with a pilot who refuses to take you back to the terminal and a stewardess who won?t even give you fresh water? The backlash of the negative online press this nugget of fresh hell produced was second only to the American Airlines debacle.

However, how would this have gone down if now former Chairman David Neelman was one of us, a reputation manager? Of course this is a little back to forward of typical reputation management as the disaster as already occurred but now he needs to turn this negative into a positive and let the world know about it. Well here?s my take. First Mr. Neelman would have realized that the people in charge of each of his planes are his pilots. Think for a minute about the psychology of a pilot. If they weren?t trained in the military chances are they still hold true to that mentality. If the tower tells them to ?hold on tarmac for ten hours…? that is exactly what they are going to do, without falter. Many of them waited hours before they alerted the passengers as to what was happening. So I would have directed each and every pilot to immediately announce the delay and assure them that even though we have no control of Mother Nature every employee, including the CEO, is aware of the situation and are working like mad to make it right. We also confirm that JetBlue employees will arrange free cars and hotels and offer to alert family members.

Finally we authorize the pilots to have the stewardess break out all the food, beverages and movies for free. Concurrently I would utilize every connection I had with the airports to get the planes back to the terminals. Now we get a team to start booking every hotel suite, car, limousine, and tour bus whatever we can get our hands on. Yes I did type suite and limousine because this no matter what you spend now it is going to save your reputation in the long run. Trust me, treating your already disgruntled clients like cattle headed to the slaughter house is a sure fire way to loose any loyalty you once had.

Now we contact every off work employee we can and offer them double pay if they?ll rush back to the airports to help coordinate the sudo-evacuation. We even offer a bonus; any employee that gets a signed note, along with a phone number, from a customer who states we?ve exceeded their expectations in handling this crisis will get $50.00. How fast do you think an hourly employee would risk rain, sleet and snow to get back to that airport? How hard would they push airport management to get those planes back to the terminal? And when they got them back how unbelievably nice would each and every one of those employees be? Our passengers would be treated like royalty.

On the public front we get management back in the office or logged in offsite to work on press releases, web videos and internet chatter. There will be an alert on our home page and a link to a forum allowing people to comment on their experiences. We will remain radically transparent. When the web world begins to learn of all we have proactively done to assist our customers during this horrible event the reports will be more along the lines of, ?JetBlue grounded, thousands stranded, customers actually happy?.? The point is we successfully averted a catastrophe while maintaining our reputation by stepping up, addressing the issues at hand and allowing our customers and employees to share the results with the world.

So is American Airlines managing their reputation? We see them cancelling hundreds of flights day after day but are they arranging free car rentals, hiring limousines and entire passenger busses to get people to their destination? Here?s one for you, how cool would it be if American commissioned as many private jets they could get their hands on and flew handfuls of their customers to their destination? Then ask them all to post comments on your website. Wouldn?t this be a great one, ?American cancelled my flight but I got to fly home on a private Gulfstream jet. American Airlines is the best.? As well, they could instate the double pay/bonus incentive as I mentioned for JetBlue. Also have hoards of catering companies bring in food and drinks and send a team down to Best Buy and Circuit City and buy some portable DVD players, laptops and portable power source to entertain the masses. Here?s another original concept, call up one of those party entertainment businesses and have them send over some face painters and clowns. Sounds ridiculous? Well let me know how ridiculous it is when you have a local Fox news reporter show up looking for an angry mob to interview but instead finds a bunch of smiling, face-painted kids with animal balloons running around like it?s their birthday. All the while their parents have a chance to work with the additional staff you have on site to re-coordinate their trip. When that report shows up on the national news then you tell me what people will think of American?s reputation.

Now I realize all of this sounds much more like a PR disaster recovery plan or an ?I could have done it better that you? op-ed but allow me to clarify. Whilst I would be instructing management and public relations to carry out my requests I would also be orchestrating the web team to post the CEO?s video apology on the home page and create a public forum link so their customers can post their experiences. My bet is the people that flew on a private jet, road in a limousine, spent a night in a luxurious suite or had their kids face painted and entertained by clowns will give glowing reviews. And everyone who sees these comments will be thinking, ?American really does go above and beyond to take care of its passengers.?

When we take on a client we not only discuss their managing their online reputation, we advise on how we can provide creative and innovative ways in which we can effectively diffuse any disaster recovery issue.

Christian R

References

Beal, Andy, & Strauss, Judy (2008). Radically Transparent. Hoboken, NJ: Sybex Publishing. Hoboken, NJ