How WestJet’s Christmas Miracle may help its post-holiday service hiccup

by Derek Logan, communications advisor

Remember the WestJet Christmas Miracle? It was a month ago but I’m sure those who saw the airline’s YouTube posting will recall it with a smile on their face.

The video went viral; reaching over a million viewers in one day (total views now stand at over 34 million).

The holiday marketing campaign not only provided WestJet incredible promotion, it may have also provided the airline with “a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card” for a recent reputation crisis.

On January 7, the Edmonton Journal ran a story about a family on a WestJet flight waiting three hours to claim their bags at Edmonton International Airport because of weather delays and staffing shortages.

But the goodwill marketing campaign WestJet ran in December may provide the needed cushioning for the airline service company to bounce back.

Crisis management expert Jeff Chatterton of Checkmate Public Affairs in Kitchener, Ontario, commended the Christmas Miracle event as a smart move by WestJet in managing its reputation, saying the goodwill marketing event was essentially, “immunizing [the airline] against a bad reputation.”

Chatterton pointed out most companies operate at a neutral, or “zero” level of reputation. A goodwill event is one of the tools an organization can use to get it into the positive range and create a cushion when problems do arise. It’s still too early to say how well an event from last month will help WestJet, but it certainly won’t hinder it.

Chick-fil-A, the U.S, chicken fast food chain, is an example of how good reputation management helps weather reputation crises, without even having to rely on a high-profile event.

In 2012, the chain’s CEO Dan Cathy stated on a radio talk show and in a religious publication that he supported the biblical definition of marriage following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. Gay rights and progressive groups protested, calling for boycotts. Industry news groups like PR Daily listed Cathy’s comments as one of the Top 10 PR blunders of the year.

But findings released by Quick Service and Fast Casual Restaurant News Magazine (QSR) in August 2013, showed the chain’s revenues actually grew during the crisis period, capturing the ninth spot of top-earning fast food restaurants in the United States.

Clay Morgan, vice president of operations for Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm, blogged that having firm, committed ideas on customer service, building a loyal customer base by providing “tremendous customer service” and cultivating brand ambassadors among influential public leaders helped Chick-fil-A weather, and in fact, thrive during the public image crisis. At the height of the crisis, Chick-fil-A held a customer appreciation day and received over 600,000 customers visits. The biggest PR “blunder” of 2012 really turned to be anything but.

WestJet would have been in the same position as Chick-fil-A even if it had not held the Christmas Miracle. In a 2012 market survey, the airline ranked number one in customer satisfaction among Canada’s top six tour operators. WestJet, like Chick-fil-A, had a strong credible record among its customers prior to crisis. But WestJet’s recent history also shows a company shouldn’t rest on its laurels when things are going well.

A mix of sound everyday business practices and goodwill events help companies develop “immunity” to negative public perception that arises in a world governed by Murphy’s Law.