There are just some things you don’t do: trip blind men, steal from the collection box and refuse to refund money to people who are dying – or in the case of Spirit Airlines, someone who is a dying veteran in a wheelchair. This past week, Spirit Airlines started a very public nosedive with their mismanagement of a customer relations issue, and it seems that their marketing advisors and CEO are either too stubborn or stupid to send out a Mayday call. Corporate rules must have enough flexibility to accommodate the occasional Kobayshi Maru challenge; in this instance, Spirit Air should be grounded for taking the test after receiving a frontal lobotomy.
Spirit Air’s turbulent ride started when they refused to issue a refund for a whopping $197 ticket to Jerry Meekins, a Vietnam Vet who was advised by his doctor “not to fly” two weeks after he purchased the ticket. Meekins, who lives in Florida, contacted the airlines, explained that he had terminal cancer, and was told to pound sand. Spirit messed with the wrong guy, because Meekins had enough juice for one last fight and took a frontal assault position outside of Tampa International Airport with a sign that said: “Corporate greed is spelled Spirit Airlines” and “Spirit Airlines tells dying man no refund.” Faster than you could send up a smoke marker calling for an airstrike, the press picked up the scent and dispatched some reporters to embed themselves in the fray.
The airlines told several newly minted combat reporters: “Our reservations are non-refundable, which means we don’t do refunds and we are not going to issue Mr. Meekins a refund.” They amplified this statement with an appeal to our democratic spirit: “It wouldn’t be fair to bend the policy for one and not for all.” Within 48 hours their story was being aired in the court of public opinion; it quickly escalated from local to national news – not a bad return for a $197 investment.
Google “Spirit Airlines” and you’ll find some of these terrific “on message” headlines: Dying man pickets Spirit Airlines over refund policy; Spirit Airlines refuses refund for sick veteran; Spirit Airlines won’t refund dying veteran’s ticket, and this brand killer: “Spirit Airlines tell dying veteran ‘no refunds.’” It’s quite possible that by the time this piece runs someone will have awakened at Spirit, refunded the vet his money, then donated $10,000 to the Wounded Warrior fund – and let the national press know about it. Even if they came to life, the damage would be done – and you can bet that any veteran would rather walk than take Spirit Airlines.
What should Spirit have done? It starts with doing what every company in the world is claiming to do these days: Listen to your customers. If that fails, turn on the news and make sure that the PR or marketing manager listening to it understands the implications of what’s happening in the press.
Spirit’s problem began internally. In the age of instant media a company can’t afford to have a rigid, “just say no” policy. It didn’t take anything more sophisticated than a marker and a piece of poster board to yank Spirit’s brand out of the sky. No viral campaign or twitter onslaught – simple messages like “hey these guys are assholes” – would work with smoke signals or Morse code. Proper training on the customer service level could have nipped this problem in the bud. However the fire jumped the breech and headed for the house. When the local – then national news came calling, Spirit stuck to their black powder guns.
Faced with an onslaught of inquiries, this would have been the time for a senior executive at Spirit Air – like CEO Ben Baldanza – who is not shy when it comes to extolling his company as everything from “edgy” to “cheap” and “different”, to come out of the clouds and deal with the issue. Well Ben – you put that edge a little too close to your throat this time and failed to demonstrate anything beyond a Dickensonian response to the issue. You should not only be front and center when apologizing to this vet – but personally wheeling him around.
No matter what the outcome this week, Spirit has already waited too long. The damage is done; they can kiss the veteran market goodbye (for now). And I would advise any PR or marketing professionals looking for a job to submit to the Spirit HR department – when the dust settles, I’m sure there will be an opening or two. And if Ben continues on his roll – the Board might take a closer look at the C suite as well.
The lesson in this marketing nightmare lies in properly interpreting the impact of a customer relations decision on a case by case basis. If it explodes, immediately address it in a public manner that makes your company (at least appear) to be understanding, conciliatory, or anything but brain dead. This means having someone with a name respond – and demonstrate humility and humanity. This was an opportunity to turn bad PR into something good. All Spirit has done is demonstrate that when it comes to media management – they’re flying blind.