Canadian Interview: Robert Palmer

WestJet Airlines was applauded in the media for the way it handled weather conditions that grounded flights coast-to-coast during the holidays.

WestJet Airlines was applauded in the media for the way it handled weather conditions that grounded flights coast-to-coast during the holidays.

While almost 2,000 travellers lodged complaints against rival Air Canada with the Consumers' Association of Canada, the organization received only a few about WestJet (and about 60 positive messages). Robert Palmer, manager of public relations for WestJet Airlines, spoke to PRWeek about the crisis, and why relations with its “WestJetters” (employees) was just as important as those with its passengers.

WestJet spent millions to help stranded passengers. How did the airline come to that decision?
Providing guests with things like hotel rooms and meal vouchers when the weather plays havoc with our schedule is something WestJet began doing two years ago. Despite the fact our tariffs say that we're off the hook if cancellations and delays are due to weather, we decided we would go the extra mile for our guests regardless. With a cost structure that's 30% lower than our major competitor, these are the kinds of things we're able to do. This Christmas we spent about $2.7 million on hotel rooms, meal vouchers, taxis and buses, and aircraft chartered from third-party operators…although we were already pulling out the stops to help [passengers], we knew we had to redouble our efforts. And so we did what we did because the guest experience is a pillar of the WestJet culture, and because it was the right thing to do.
 
What role did communications/PR play during the storms?

Communication played a key role on several levels. On the front lines, we made a point of assigning WestJetters—most of whom were office workers who volunteer to help out at airports every Christmas—to walk up and down the line ups and give people information about the status of their flights. We also pulled people out of the lines who were at risk of missing their flights. But most of all, we listened. In many ways, it was public relations in its purest form—actually communicating directly with your audience(s) face to face. Externally, we spent a lot of time with the media. As a former journalist myself, I knew they'd be camped out and hungry for clips. I also knew that the long line-ups looked bad and needed some explanation and context. All in all, I probably did 10-15 media interviews a day, every day, including Christmas Day. We had a good story to tell, and we were not about to wait for someone else to tell it.

Did you track the media coverage, and were you surprised by it?
We did track the coverage; although it was all happening so fast that I'm not sure we got all of it. To be completely honest, I don't think we were as surprised at the positive feedback itself as we were about the sheer volume of it. We received well over 600 individual kudos through our Web site from guests who wanted to single out a WestJetter for recognition or thank us as a company for the way we treated them. We continue to hear and read positive comments from media commentators and organizations like the Consumers' Association of Canada. We're flattered, and we're extremely grateful for the support of our loyal guests, but once again, we did what we did because it was the right thing to do.
 
To thank employees for their work during the holidays, WestJet rewarded them with a $500 travel credit. How important was employee communications in all of this?
Internal communication was extremely important. On Christmas Eve, our president Sean Durfy sent a personal e-mail to all WestJetters thanking them for their hard work and letting them know how much their efforts were appreciated. We also posted it on our intranet. Our communications team is also posting all of those kudos I mentioned on our intranet. With respect to the travel credit, obviously WestJetters were thrilled, and we've already set up an internal discussion forum asking people how they plan to use it. In short, while the external stuff grabbed most of the spotlight, our communications initiatives were a total team effort, as always.

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