Interview: Alison Croyle, Manager of Corporate Communications, JetBlue Airways

This post was written by Nancy Lazarus, consultant and new contributor to PRNewser.

Working for JetBlue has been quite a ride for Alison Croyle, Manager of Corporate Communications at the airline.

She joined JetBlue in 2006, and has seen the communications department grow to include employee outreach, social media campaigns and international expansion.

PRNewser spoke with her last week about all these efforts, and in the process learned more about the airline’s sense of humor and also how it weathered a PR crisis due to strong customer brand loyalty.

How has JetBlue’s PR function and department changed and evolved in the 10 years that the airline has been in business?

Prior to 2007 we were in the traditional media world. Then starting in 2007 we entered social media forums including Flickr and evolving from there into twitter and Facebook and our own B6 blog. We also started growing our internal communications team, focused on our internal audiences.

I’ve been here since August of 2006, and prior to my joining it was a small group within the corporate communications department that included a core team of 6 people. It was run by a Vice President, Director, 3 managers and an administrative assistant, and since then we have grown to a team of 12.

A key element of JetBlue’s communications has been focused on its employees and a recent example posted on the company’s blog is the Crewmember Tailfin design contest. JetBlue crewmembers were invited to submit proposal designs for another new tailfin. What were the goals of this program?

One thing that sets Jet Blue apart is our culture, and as we’ve grown to become one of the largest U.S. airlines we’ve focused on keeping our culture smaller-scale. We have a community of employees, aka crewmembers, who make a difference in not only the day-to-day operations but also in the way the airline is run. We want to keep the experience of working here fun and relevant for them.

We’ve focused on keeping our crewmembers involved and making them part of what JetBlue is today. The tailfin contest was created as part of JetBlue’s 10th anniversary in February this year. As part of that celebration we wanted to refresh our tailfin designs and give our crewmembers the opportunity to have their own design painted on the tailfin.

Last year JetBlue introduced its CEO Outreach program ‘Welcome Big Wigs,’ where CEOs were offered a tongue-in-cheek challenge to explore the benefits and value offered by JetBlue. Can you provide more details about this program, and were there any CEOs who wanted publicity for flying JetBlue?

In mid February of 2009 we ran two ads reaching out to ‘Big Wigs,’ letting them know that they are welcome aboard now that they can’t fly their private jets. One ad appeared in The New York Times and the other in The Wall Street Journal, each containing the address of a microsite with more information.

In March 2009, as part of this ongoing recession-awareness program, we released a series of instructional videos for head honchos aimed at those private jet-riding executives not accustomed to flying with “regular” people.

While we did not work directly with any CEOs or self-appointed ‘Big Wigs’ for publicity, the program generated a lot of attention online, in print and on television, including the ‘Today’ show, MSNBC, Fox & Friends and CNN.

You mentioned that JetBlue next plans to fly to Latin America. What communications efforts will be involved in that geographic expansion?

We don’t use any outside PR agencies, only internal PR efforts. We recently hired a manager of international communications and he’ll be focused on our PR efforts in Latin America. We’ve been working together with the airport authorities in the specific cities that we are looking to fly to.

For instance, with our Punta Cana launch coming up in early May from New York and Boston we are working with those airport authorities to celebrate on launch day. We’ll have an inaugural flight and a celebration at JFK airport for our customers. We’ll also have a JetBlue executive on the flight and we’re partnering with Dominican Tourism to have celebrations onboard.

We typically set up press conference on the launch flight for any new city location with the local media to give them the opportunity to hear from our executives who were on board the flight. They’ll speak more about our expansion plans in that area.

Afterwards we maintain one-on-one communications with the local media there, and we usually tweet about our new city openings, post a story on our intranet and daily news for our crewmembers. We’ll probably also create a story on our new blog to get the word out.

You’ve already touched upon JetBlue’s Social media presence and I wanted to find out more about these efforts. JetBlue was one of the first companies to have a twitter account in 2007 and now has over 1.5 million followers. Can you outline the programs that drove that popularity?

The social media team is led by another staff member and he started on twitter in 2007. Since then we’ve grown to 1.6 million followers today, but we really started our strategy with social media and twitter by engaging our customers in conversations and a running dialogue to get our message across. Now we also use twitter as a monitoring tool to hear real-time thoughts from our customers on how we can improve our service.

I think that using the platform as a conversation tool rather than as a promotions tool has helped us grow as large as we have in the twitter sphere.

We also recently started a separate twitter account called ‘JetBlue Cheeps‘ and we have used that twitter account for our sales-driven initiatives and to provide customers with access to sales only available through twitter.

We believe that keeping that twitter account separate is crucial. It allows us to engage in an ongoing interaction with customers who want more information about what we are doing.

Yesterday we did a fun twitter promotion in New York City as part of our tenth anniversary. It was more of a scavenger hunt, where we went to Manhattan and tweeted from certain locations. For those people who showed up first with a birthday card for JetBlue, they got a free round-trip ticket.

The attention we received was overwhelming.

Within the first 3 minutes of our tweet they came from all areas of the city and lined up to get their free tickets. We continued throughout the day by tweeting that we’re all out of tickets for this location but keep following us and we’ll be in the next location soon. That promotion stirred up a lot of buzz in the twitter arena yesterday.

JetBlue has had a far smaller presence on Facebook, and now has a program to increase the number of its Facebook fans. Can you comment on why that is the case and also describe what the airline is doing to increase its Facebook presence?

We got a fairly late start in developing a relevant Facebook page for fans, and recently we created a new program based on the success of our “All you can jet” pass which launched in late fall last year. Customers could purchase all they can jet travel for $599 on Jet Blue and fly for a full month anywhere we fly, as many times as they like.

Based on the success of that program, we started a Facebook promotion where being a JetBlue fan makes one eligible to win “all you can jet” passes. We have already seen a steady increase of Facebook fans and we hope to continue to use similar promotions to gain more fans. We also want to interact across social media platforms by using twitter and our B6 blog to drive more people to Facebook.

In February of 2007, the airline received a lot of unwelcome publicity for stranding passengers on the runway during a snow storm. Since you worked at JetBlue during that time, did you ever think when you were going through the crisis that the brand would be able to rebound, and what were the most important lessons learned from that experience?

I think the lesson learned is that it’s very important to have a strong base of goodwill with your customers. JetBlue’s brand was so strong that although we disappointed thousands of customers during that week, we had banked a lot of goodwill with them throughout the years, and that helped our brand bounce back very quickly.

According to Net Promoter Scores, we actually rebounded within several weeks of the storm, back to the same levels of customer satisfaction. Later that year, we also won the J.D. Powers & Associates award for highest level of customer satisfaction.

It was important to know that while we let our customers down during that time, they were willing to try us again and fly JetBlue.
The creation of our Customer Bill of Rights, written 7 days after the storm, was also important.

We were the first airline to do so, and the only airline to have one that shows in clear terms what customers can expect from us if they are caught in a delay that’s within JetBlue’s control. If their flight is canceled for maintenance or crew related reasons, it outlines in monetary terms what they can expect from us due to that service disruption.

Overall, I think that providing them with an apology and a plan of action about how we will correct any issues in the future really assisted in bringing us back to the level we were at previously.