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JetBlue, Steve Slater, and the Challenges of Crisis Management via Social Media

Some things about the world are certain: One is that the world is full of pissed-off employees, and another is that when a corporation finds itself in the midst of controversy, the key question for the social media intelligentsia is how well has it been tweeting? And so it has been with JetBlue and its handling of the curious case of Steve Slater, the flight attendant who quit the job by deploying an airplane's emergency chute -- beer in hand.

Usually, the cluck-clucking is about how a lot of brands don't even have a real social media presence, so they can't use platforms like Facebook or Twitter to respond in a crisis. But the problem, in this case, is that for the last few years JetBlue has been an exemplary social media brand, and yet it took it awhile to figure out how to handle what is an admittedly unusual situation.

Its Twitter account, @jetblue, which has 1.5 million followers, is a cavalcade of person-to-person politeness, in which the airline responds rapid-fire to queries from JetBlue travelers who use Twitter as the place to get heard by the airline. Nothing showed up there for the first two days except for a plea for humorist Andy Borowitz to stop Joking on Twitter about how people should act out of line on JetBlue flights just to see what would happen.

Its blog "Blue Tales" a lighthearted look at JetBlue, was also strangely silent. Even though there's much the company can't address about the Slater incident for legal reasons, it would have seemed as though JetBlue was up to the task of confronting it in some fashion, quickly.

But no. For the first couple of days, it was as though this had happened at some other airline. A post finally went up on the blog, yesterday, under the cryptic headline: "Sometimes the weird news is about us-- " It was essentially a shout-out to all of the inflight staff who don't have a habit of deploying inflatable slides in moments of frustration. The slowness of the response was perplexing.

On the one hand, none of us should expect JetBlue to have a social media plan built around disgruntled employees with a flare for dramatic departures. On the other hand, JetBlue is an industry where expecting the unexpected is de riguer. Controversy, tragedy, and in this case, tragi-comedy are all part of it, and JetBlue knows this. Its embrace of social media came about in part because of the Valentine's Day incident of 2007, when a snowstorm not only caused mass flight cancellations, but also left some customers stranded in planes on the tarmac for more than six hours. In short, JetBlue should be able to deal with this. Interestingly, even as the brand's social channels were silent about the Slater incident early this week, it did continue to run a tweetstream about JetBlue (pictured above) alongside the blog; on that, the story was front and center.

The lesson here for any brand involved in social media is that once you've established yourself there, you have to be able to respond to anything quickly, even if all you can say is that, unfortunately, you can't comment because of legal issues, passenger privacy or whatever. People understand that -- but they don't understand silence. In the big scheme of things, this situation isn't all that important, but brand credibility is built day-by-day through millions of customer interactions, but the build is much slower if the brand can't show itself to be there for its fans, no matter what the news is.