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JetBlue Airways Hits Bumpy Air
JetBlue Airways, the low-fare darling of the airline industry, had a bad day that lasted
more than two months. A Valentine’s Day ice storm in 2007 left passengers in planes
on runways for ten hours and in northeastern U.S. airports for much longer. A total of
1,100 planes were grounded over a six-day period. How could their favorite airline do
this to these loyal customers? What started with an understandable act of nature
became a crisis due to JetBlue’s internal communication system failure. Flight crews
and airport personnel could not coordinate well with corporate decision makers to
handle the unhappy customers.
JetBlue had over seven years of stellar reputation that became quite tarnished in
just a few days. Scrambling to make this right, Founder and then-CEO David Neele-
man responded with classic crisis-management savvy:
• On February 19, he accepted responsibility and made a public apology, which
received national coverage across traditional media outlets. He also sent e-mail
and paper letters to customers expressing his regrets on behalf of the company.
• Also on February 19, he posted a video on YouTube introducing the “Customer
Bill of Rights,” explaining what the company would do to make sure this never
• On February 22, JetBlue posted the Bill of Rights on its website.
• On March 19, Neeleman reported back about JetBlue’s progress in a company
blog entry titled “Talk is Cheap.”
All this while the company was dealing with over 5,000 media requests and calls
from PR professionals offering their counsel. In the meantime, the internet rapidly
filled with public opinion. Customers posted their own YouTube videos on February
19, showing themselves abandoned in airports, eating junk food for 24 hours and hop-
ing to get somewhere. Others commented on Neeleman’s apology video: “I’ll pass on
the Kool-Aid, thanks. This airline is a joke and anyone who buys this B.S. from this
moron deserves to be stranded for 10 hours w/ no food, water or toilets! Boycott Jet-
Blew!!” Before the Bill of Rights appeared, the following comments were posted on Jet-
Blue’s website regarding the three-day posting delay: “I love Jet Blue…The message of
the video is great, but, why can’t I get the Bill of Rights on the Jet Blue website?” And:
“I couldn’t live without JetBlue! I appreciate your personal message and attention to
every new problem. We ALL learn from our mistakes.”
By May 7, nearly 300,000 people had viewed Neeleman’s video and nearly 500
had commented on it. Like judges, the internet community was still critiquing this inci-
dent in May 2007, reviewing the company’s reactions to both the crisis and the commu-
nity conversation, and evaluating Director of Communications Jenny Dervin’s every word
and move. People also posted comments about new JetBlue incidents and compared them to the Bill of Rights: Were they followed, they asked? JetBlueHostage.com emerged as a
blog filled with customer, employee, and public opinion about it all. A six-day incident,
handled well by the traditional PR book, did not completely return JetBlue to its previous
Conversation in social media amplified JetBlue’s crisis, showing the need for new
PR practices. This incident led to the replacement of founder and CEO Neeleman on
May 10. The company handled this crisis reasonably well, yet it continues to plague
JetBlue—what could they have done differently?
The Reality of a Transparent, Always-On, Wired World
JetBlue’s problems started with a genuine crisis, but sometimes this mob mentality
begins in a most unexpected way. In an article for MSN.com, columnist Scott Burns
asked, “Is Home Depot Shafting Shoppers?” His description of personal experiences at
the retailer led to the conclusion that home improvement company Home Depot “is a
consistent abuser of its customers’ time.” That same day, the MSN staff received
10,000 e-mails and 4,000 posts in the story’s Talk Back section describing all of Home
Depot’s problems. How could Home Depot CEO Frank Blake learn about and handle
a huge reputation problem like this that blooms to gigantic proportion within hours?
The rise in social media means that anyone can post pictures or write about your
company, 24/7 online, and will. Business customers and consumers alike actively judge
your company and comment online for their network members’ enlightenment. In the
business-to-business (B2B) market, word-of-mouth communication influenced 53% of
work-related purchases by business decision makers—some of it online, according to
research firm Keller Fay Group. In the business-to-consumer (B2C) market, Jupiter
Research found that 90% of large companies believe consumer recommendations are
important in influencing other consumers’ purchase decisions. Astonishingly, despite
this awareness only 20% of corporations have a formal process in place for monitoring
blog posts written about their company, according to Harris Interactive.
Citizen journalists don’t limit their reputation-tarnishing conversations to
companies—they also threaten the personal reputations of individuals. A total of
23% of Americans search online for the dirt on colleagues, customers, and employees
(according to Sean Michael Kerner of ClickZ, a resource for interactive marketing
news). Recruiting firm ExecuNet found that 78% of executive recruiters routinely use
search engines to learn more about job candidates, and 35% have eliminated candi-
dates based on the information they found. Thanks to the availability of information
on the internet, others can quickly learn about your actions, history, and point of view.
At risk are C-level officers, entrepreneurs, professionals, marketing executives,
salespeople, job seekers, and others. Citizen journalists and people paparazzi have devices
to capture your every move (cameras and video phones), software to create and manipu-
late content, and a network for distribution to millions of people in e-mail, blogs, or
video posting sites (e.g., YouTube). “Nastiness can erupt online and go global overnight,”
says BuzzMarketingForTechblogger Paul Dunay. All this without your knowledge—and
potentially discovered first by your important business customers and partners.
Jack Welch, Sir Richard Branson, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and Dale Carnegie trans-
lated their outstanding personal reputations into business profits. Celebrities and politi-
cians trade on their reputations, as do all of us. In one unusual example, Janet
Schoenberg was evicted from her New York apartment and felt her case was not being
properly handled by Judge Jerald R. Klein. Janet could find no way to attract attention
to her perceived inequity, so she put the judge up for sale on eBay. She posted a picture
and offered free worldwide shipping (according to The New York Times, the best offer
after four days was $127.50). The judge didn’t discover this misuse of his image until a
reporter called. Nor would most men think of looking for disgruntled ex-girlfriend
postings about them at DontDateHimGirl.com.
Every day, people discuss your personal and corporate reputations on blogs,
forums, and niche websites. This kind of transparency requires new reputation-