Once upon a time, a weird news story was just a weird news story. Now, thanks to the Web, it's an international sensation and everyone can be a part of it: a reality-show-hungry couple claiming their kid flew away in a balloon; a strange, dead animal washing ashore; an oddball clan of Alaskans getting improbably close to the White House.
This week, it was the ridiculous story of Steven Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant who cursed out an uncooperative passenger over the intercom, activated the plane's emergency slide, and escaped with a beer in hand. Not only is it tailor-made for a Zach Galifianakis character with anger management problems, but it's the perfect wacky, speculative, and yet somehow socially provocative news story that will get the Internet fired up.
For JetBlue, which has crafted itself as an airline with a sense of humor and a savviness with regard to new-media "conversation," it wasn't going to be able to get away with a simple "no comment" on this one.
The Steven Slater saga is, almost without a doubt, the nuttiest airline-industry online PR snafu since film director Kevin Smith made sure that every single one of his million-plus Twitter followers knew that Southwest Airlines had informed him he was too overweight to fly. And as it had with Smith, the public opinion steered in Slater's favor, with his I'm-mad-as-hell tirade making him a sort of working-class hero. In addition to about a zillion Twitter quips and Facebook status messages about him (many evoking actor Samuel L. Jackson's profanity-filled tirade in the 2006 film "Snakes on a Plane"), Slater inspired blog posts with headlines like "As A Flight Attendant Who Longed to Jump From a Plane, I Get Steven Slater" and late-night TV comedy routines that more or less wrote themselves.
"JetBlue really does have the best in-flight entertainment!" exclaimed Comedy Central pundit Stephen Colbert in his crowning of Slater as "Alpha Dog of the Week." NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" even enlisted over-the-top blogger Perez Hilton to perform a reenactment of what happened on board, with Hilton screaming into a fake intercom about experiencing a "full-on double rainbow of rage." (That's an allusion to yet another Internet meme.)
JetBlue, which was one of the first big companies to embrace the use of Twitter as a communications and branding tool, couldn't really have gotten away without saying anything, or even just releasing the standard "no comment" statement of yore. It's chugged plenty of "conversational marketing" Kool-Aid, and couldn't easily retreat from that strategy in this situation. And indeed, a delay for a few days was making some critics impatient. An AdAge article Tuesday pointed out that "if JetBlue is observed to be taking the matter lightly on Twitter or in discussions with the media, it could be used against the company by Mr. Slater or the Federal Aviation Authority."
On its corporate blog, JetBlue broke the silence Wednesday--undoubtedly after extensive consultations with its legal counsel. "While we can't discuss the details of what is an ongoing investigation, plenty of others have already formed opinions on the matter," a company representative wrote in a post. "Like, the entire Internet." The blog post explained that out of respect for the privacy of the individual, it wasn't saying any more. But it attempted to end on a positive note: "While this episode may feed your inner 'Office Space,' we just want to take this space to recognize our 2,100 fantastic, awesome, and professional in-flight crew members for delivering the JetBlue Experience you've come to expect of us."
The incident in itself probably wasn't going to reflect too badly on JetBlue, as Tuesday's AdAge article pointed out. Unlike the Southwest-Kevin Smith incident, this wasn't an an exercise of controversial airline policy or a customer-service mess--it was, very obviously, the act of a rogue individual. And Slater, as has been well-publicized, quit his job as part of the noisy tirade, meaning that the airline wasn't going to have to deal with publicly or not-so-publicly firing him. Where JetBlue was really at risk, image-wise, was in how it crafted its response.
There is, also, still a vulnerable spot: As JetBlue emphasized, there is a pending investigation into the incident. The "Save Steven Slater" campaigns are already brewing; JetBlue may want to brace for the barrage of an epic wacky fan stunt if it looks like he'll face significant legal or disciplinary action--and even still, that's pretty tame.