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JetBlue’s Flight Plan for the Future: Connecting With the Cockpit to Preserve the Direct Relationship With Pilots

MWW Group and JetBlue Airways, Jan. 1, 2012

Summary: 2012 Silver Anvil Award Winner — Crisis Communications — Business

JetBlue Airways and MWW Group created, ran, and won a union representation election against the world’s largest pilots union, Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), by dramatically shifting opinions of ALPA’s relationship with JetBlue, mobilizing voting, and preserving JetBlue’s culture and business strategy in only eight weeks. The margin of victory was dramatic (58-41) and set a record for turnout in the National Mediation Board (NMB) elections with 97.24 percent voting. At the highest stakes, the team worked with exceptional discipline, collaboration and flexibility to turn the tide, and reverse the fortunes of America’s most celebrated airline.

"Crisis Communications" includes programs undertaken to deal with an unplanned event that required an immediate response. "Business" include all profit-making entities.

JetBlue is America's only union-free major carrier, and believes its direct relationship with "Crew" is vital to culture and business model. When ALPA, the world's largest pilots union, filed for election to represent JetBlue’s 2,108 pilots, the stakes were immense. JetBlue partnered with MWW Group with an objective of winning, but doing so without damaging the culture or precluding a constructive working relationship in the future. Additionally, protecting the brand and operational integrity was paramount.

ALPA rarely loses, and federal law changes in May 2010 make it easier to unionize with a simple majority of voters now deciding outcome. ALPA has won elections at 49 carriers, and many JetBlue pilots were ALPA members previously. Fundamentals were stacked in ALPA's favor:

  • Pilot schedules create dispersed, transitory workforce making it very difficult to engage.
  • From filing to voting close, NMB elections run only eight weeks, and a company's actions are highly restricted. Anything deemed "interference" by NMB allows the union to call for a new election, with additional advantages.

Our primary audience was the 2,108 pilots eligible to vote. Pilots are extremely transitory — flying several days then "off the grid" — and highly diverse in experience. They range from 30-year veterans of airlines flying with JetBlue since its start in 1999 to nearly 200 pilots joining in the past six months, some who only flew previously for the military. With only six weeks to create and run a campaign from notification of filing, speed was essential.

Unlike many companies facing unionization, JetBlue has an excellent track record of listening, treating employees fairly and continuously improving quality of life. Still, economic conditions sparked job security fears, particularly among experienced pilots arriving at JetBlue after furloughed by legacy carriers. With 10,000+ furloughs and nearly 20 bankruptcies and mergers in the industry over the past decade, job security is a top priority. Pilots are intelligent, educated, and considered leaders among peers. We treated them accordingly, utilizing infographics, managerial-style communications, and favoring substance and transparency over sound bites.

We recognized three imperatives for success:

  1. Engage.
  2. Educate on what's at stake.
  3. Motivate to vote.

Key strategic elements included:
Dialogue vs. one-way: Engage in an authentic way through intimate conversations with the CEO and COO via in-person visits, a Q-and-A and videos.
Go where pilots are: Multi-channel approach in the crew room, at home, and mobile-optimized website.
Factual discourse over emotion: Rigorous fact-based messaging, contrasting track records. Acknowledge where JetBlue can improve, and confront misinformation directly. Given the volatile nature of the campaign and compressed time frame, we utilized a robust communications calendar and implemented a detailed campaign to reach all pilots, and address the burning issues. Campaign tactics included:

  • Digital platform for content: Launched a robust, mobile-optimized website at Content was updated daily, including an interactive Q-and-A.
  • Rapid response to tough questions: Answered 100+ questions within 48 hours of submission, including openly hostile ones.
  • Dynamic, engaging video: Created and posted 15 videos, including responses by COO to a difficult FAQ.
  • Using infographics to simplify complex issues: Produced infographics distributed through posters and flight information display screens in crew rooms, postcards to homes and airport mailboxes.
  • Face-to-face with pilots: Conducted 35+ informal CEO/COO crew room base visits in all five JetBlue bases.

By every measure, the campaign was a resounding success:

  • 17 point victory (58-41, with 1 percent write-in).
  • 97.24 percent election turnout — NMB election record (source: Daily Labor Report).
  • ALPA did not file interference charges challenging the election despite public statements indicating they would, presumably due to the overwhelming victory and lack of content justifying filing.

Public Relations Society of America © 2012