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Neeleman Unplugged

On the heels of my article Airline Turbulence concerning the poor record of airline customer communication, David Neeleman, the CEO of JetBlue posted a video on YouTube and on the JetBlue website.

It’s an interesting video for a number of reasons. Neeleman’s performance is anything but polished but, for a change, I’m not bothered too much by it. He seems to be speaking in a somewhat impromptu manner with lots of umms, uhhs, swallows and lip smacking. The organization of his thoughts also seems a bit loose.

I’m surmising that Neeleman decided to do this video because despite his repeated apologies and expressions of shame during the past week and a half, the damage to JetBlue’s image was too great to be left to the middlemen also known as the press. He did not want his words to be colored by other sources — critics and pundits — that reporters typically interview when putting together an article. Neeleman wanted to have a more direct impact. He felt, perhaps, that his apologia would be taken as more sincere if customers could see his facial expression, vocal inflection, hand gestures and other nonverbal cues. The question is, did he succeed?

The first thing I noticed was his dress. He is wearing a light-colored, open-collared, button-down shirt. This is not the best choice for a video in that it makes someone with Neeleman’s coloring look washed out. This communicates a couple of things: First, that in such a situation, one should not be very concerned with such surface issues and second, he’s been working non-stop since the crisis began, and there has been no time to go home and change. Perhaps he’s even been sleeping at the office. His face did seem to have been dusted with powder, but maybe he just has dry skin.

His delivery is quite rough, as I mentioned above. It’s not the performance one expects to see from a CEO of a company in the midst of dealing with such a newsworthy event. The informal, unscripted sound of the remarks tells us that there was no time for polishing. Yet, the benefit of his delivery style in this instance is that it shows he’s a regular guy without pretense. Just like you and me. This is an effective technique that communicates empathy.

There are a couple of bones I can pick. I believe I detected a little smirk – or maybe it was an expression of irony or of surrender – when he mentioned how the company’s travails had been covered in the press. I’m sure he cannot be happy about that but I think that he should get over it. After all, when you’re a company that has been shouting service, service, service at every possible opportunity, it’s fair that when you fail as miserably as JetBlue did, you be called on it. But, okay, the guy’s human.

Regarding the loose organization, Neeleman began by saying “Dear JetBlue customers,” I can only guess that he was thinking about the letter that had been posted to JetBlue’s website earlier in the week. But it sounds downright weird to hear someone say it out loud. Still, he obviously did not think it was important enough to go back and correct it. Of all the technique issues, this small error speaks most loudly and most truthfully about Neeleman’s desire to not spend time worrying about his performance. The fact that he wasn’t reading and didn’t even seem to be referring to notes drives that point home again. He didn’t look coached.

As someone who works with CEO speakers like David Neeleman, I found it to be somewhat refreshing to see this performance. I am experienced (and cynical) enough to believe that it was not completely winged. It never is. But it also wasn’t necessary for every i to be dotted and t to be crossed. There was certainly a method to his madness but I also think the method suited the situation.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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