Thursday, August 12, 2010

The lawyer in me

As a journalist, I think I had to sign a pledge to hate attorneys.

Most were always in the way, blocking the path from the information I wanted for a story. A few I could work with and get off-the-record background.

Yet, I understood attorneys had a role to play: To protect their client.

As I transitioned into public relations, "protecting the client" was among my new duties, too.

I soon learned many of the tactics used by attorneys also worked well in public relations. (Please, don't tell them I said this).

Among these lessons that came in handy were:
  • Short statements. We call this: "Staying on Message." For attorneys, the less "information" out there, the less room for interpretation and innuendo. This is especially helpful in crisis communication situations. If we put out too much detail too soon, we're giving the story more life than it needs at the moment.

  • Investigation. Some of the best defense attorneys and prosecutors I know (I covered many high-profile criminal cases) and some great detectives always assume nothing. Usually, the first story changes as facts are gathered and the investigation proceeds. What may appear to be solid "facts" invariably change.

These two lessons were in play this week for JetBlue and their former flight attendant who received a lot of attention for his use of multiple "f" bombs and an emergency chute to resign.

JetBlue didn't say much right away. First statement was standard. Then they had a little fun with their blog and reminded everyone that the rest of their flight attendants really do care about customer service, passengers, safety, etc. They gave out $100 vouchers to the passengers.

The reason they didn't want to say much is that investigations can turn up some interesting details. And, investigations take time. Especially, when police and others need to interview passengers, collect evidence ($25,000 to replace a chute), etc. And, to find out more about Steve the flight attendant.

And, for JetBlue, there was an unexpected bonus: A surge of sympathy for all flight attendants and the crap they have to put up with.

So, now, it seems, after a little more investigating.... the pendulum is swinging against our working class hero. The lovable image, the thousands of Facebook friends, the sympathy from others who feel just the same, the "Free Steve" t-shirts and a nation who seemed to embrace this guy....may soon fade as we begin to hear reports that our former flight attendant may not be so much a victim as a perpetrator. Heck, even Donald Trump is calling this guy a lousy employee and raises a great question about whether we all could count on a potential unstable flight attendant in an emergency.

Time will tell if he remains a folk hero. Much of this depends, I reason, on whether he makes it on Leno, Letterman or one of the morning TV news shows. And, how soon he does this. The longer he waits, the better his 15 seconds of fame disappear.

The PR community is going nuts on this one, with every expert offering their advice. If I were JetBlue, I would read these blogs and comments on trade articles - because it's all free. Some great ideas are out there -- just for (Hey folks, stop giving away this stuff).

From a corporate perspective, JetBlue has been handling this perfectly. They said little and let investigations take their course. And, guess what, the story is changing.

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