Good PR should never be underestimated nor should the power of social media. Unfortunately for Spirit Airlines, they found that out the hard way this month.
When Vietnam Veteran Jerry Meekins discovered he was dying of cancer, doctors advised him not to fly. He attempted to get a refund for a $197 ticket he purchased to visit his daughter and take care of her after a scheduled surgery. However, that request was denied and talks of boycotts and public outrage quickly followed when the story hit the news and social media. The Boycott Spirit Airlines page on Facebook was soon buzzing with comments and now boasts nearly 41,000 likes.
Spirit’s CEO Ben Baldanza said in a statement, “We feel very badly for Mr. Meekins. However, this is a country and a society where we kind of play by the rules, and he wanted to really not do that and that’s really not fair to the 10 million other Spirit customers.” The remark was considered quite callous and tone deaf, particularly for an airline named “Spirit.” He later walked back his comments to say, amid the swell of public anger, “In my statements regarding Mr. Meekins’ request for a refund, I failed to explain why our policy on refunds makes Spirit Airlines the only affordable choice for so many travelers, and I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country.”
Baldanza later added an apology stating that “sometimes we make mistakes.” He then personally refunded $197 to Mr. Meekins and made a donation of $5,000 to the Wounded Warrior Project. But was the response too little, too late? One comment may sum up public sentiment well: “I really don’t care that they did cave, the fact is it should have never happened in the first place. For that reason alone, I will never fly with them.”
While the final response was acceptable, it was not enough in the eyes of many current and potential clients. Instead of defending their policy, which is certainly legitimate, Spirit could have used the spotlight to turn the situation into a positive for the company by going the extra mile (think Tylenol and pill bottle safety). Imagine if they had flown the daughter to him or some other grand gesture. It could have turned the situation around completely.
People understand, for the most part, that a company must have policies and see a profit to survive. However, someone should have recognized early on that fighting a veteran dying of cancer is a no-win situation—indeed, it may be unforgivable. That’s were great leadership and great communications should prevail.
Good PR professionals simply cringe when we see missteps of this magnitude, such unnecessary ill will created for the brand. People understand that mistakes will happen, and they appreciate honesty when they do. Be sure your company gets out ahead of tough situations before you have this kind of escalation. With information set to go viral at any second, you must have a PR firm at the ready so that you do not end up in the same boat as Spirit Airlines. How is your team doing? If you’re considering a change, give Liquid Line a call or contact us today. We’d love to talk to you about how your company can shine in any circumstance, in any medium, and at any time.
See the video from Fox News: