How JetBlue Can Regain Its Golden Image

Flight 292's edge-of-the-seat landing tarnished the carrier's reputation, says PR maven Mike Paul, who thinks customers need some reassurance

It might be the first time in history that a crippled airliner, in this case a New York-bound JetBlue plane with its landing gear in flames, makes an emergency landing as its 146 passengers watch TV coverage of the events unfold in real time on their seatback LCD screens.

It may also be the first time that JetBlue Airways (JBLU ) faces a serious threat to its carefully cultivated brand. While the deplaning passengers of Flight 292 roundly praised the airline for its handling of the crisis -- "It was the smoothest landing I ever had," remarked one -- JetBlue, the popular low-cost carrier beloved by customers for its service, flying experience, and safety record, now finds itself with a chink in its otherwise shiny reputation.

Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, has worked with global corporations, governments, and individuals on crisis and reputation management. Paul says that while JetBlue has some consumer capital in its favor, the airline will still need to take some important steps to maintain or regain the flying public's trust. BusinessWeek Online reporter Stacy Perman recently spoke with Paul, who incidentally earlier this week flew from California to New York on JetBlue, about successfully coming out of a crisis. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Right after the heavy news coverage of JetBlue's faulty landing gear on fire come the laudatory comments of its rescued passengers. The news coverage now almost seems like an extension of a JetBlue commercial. Can the company use this to its advantage?

First, there are negatives and positives here. In the negative, there's something that you can't change: the visual on global TV of a fire and burnt tires, allowing [viewers] to hear, see, and have their hearts touched by a very near disaster.

The positive in that situation is that before they landed the people were in tears, fearing for lives, ironically watching themselves while in crisis. Their reaction to how they were treated in the midst of the crisis is positive. Literally being alive is a positive.

Until this incident, JetBlue had a commendable reputation among passengers. How will this incident affect that?

JetBlue isn't perfect anymore. If I was one of the survivors, I would say it was great and I would fly them again. I flew [on JetBlue] this week, and I said. "Thank God that wasn't me!" In my mind, the picture of a perfect record is gone, but that isn't going to stop me from flying. There are different audiences that the airline will need to reach.

What do you mean?

JetBlue can utilize the good feeling of the passengers to broadcast that it knows how to handle a crisis. But there will be a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario to deal with, depending on whether this was an accident or the airline was in error.

Using the passengers will be an effective tool in the worst-case scenario. If I were JetBlue and this was the result of an error, I would advise them that someone from the company has to respond, but I would ask three passengers if they would be willing to do interviews, especially those who are passionate about JetBlue. That's something you can't fake, especially if their life was on the line. In either case, I would want to have passengers come out and talk.

What else would you advise?

The goal is to keep the customer, everything else is irrelevant. If customers are leaving and it's affecting shareholder value, you have a problem. The rest is spin, and spin is a lie.

You want to repair and build your reputation with the truth. It will come out anyway, and [if you haven't presented the facts already], you're seen as Pinocchio. JetBlue's crew handled this well, and, yes, the customers love them. But they should say thank you for that, but then say, "The bottom line is, this is a serious situation, and we aren't taking it lightly."

It's a sensitivity issue. They should remind people that they're a responsible company and that they're accountable. They should say, "We are checking all of our planes," whether it ends up that they're at fault or not. They must be proactive. They should say, "We don't think it was our problem initially, but we want customers to know that safety comes first." It helps to take the negative away by making a proactive strike before the report comes out.

The important rule in any crisis is to think from another person's perspective, and this person is the customer. In a situation like this, you can't see the forest for the trees because you're close to it. You need to get an average person's opinion, a client who loves you and then someone who takes the airline only some of the time. You need to have answers from all of them. That's where your money's made.

Given the chaotic state of the airline industry, how will this affect JetBlue going forward?

Overall, they're known as the airline that learned its lessons from the Big Boys. I've been asked to comment before on why the larger airlines couldn't actively compete with JetBlue and I said that it's hard for a dinosaur to run like a cheetah.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. If this is a worst-case scenario [and it's shown that the airline was at fault, then] the smaller airline [may be] seen as potentially less safe than a global hub airline like American Airlines (AA ). The competition is fierce in the airline industry now. For them to survive and stay out of bankruptcy, it boils down to [their response to] fear, especially in a post 9/11 world.

Edited by Beth Belton

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