One of the trendiest cause-marketing thrusts at the moment is assisting past or present US military personnel. It’s nearly impossible to go through a day without seeing someone’s efforts to find veterans a job, build one a home or raise money to show our support and appreciation.
The efforts are so prevalent it was surprising to see a national company pick a public fight with a dying veteran … a fight it didn’t need.
Recently, Vietnam War veteran Jerry Meekins bought a ticket on Spirit Airlines to visit his daughter. But before he could take the trip, he learned the cancer he was fighting was terminal and his doctor would not allow him to make the visit. What unfolded next was a PR disaster that played out on newscasts, blogs and social media platforms for more than two weeks.
Spirit Airlines refused Jerry’s request for a refund. The carrier insisted they had a policy against refunds and that Jerry should have purchased traveler’s insurance.
“Our reservations are non-refundable, which means we do not issue refunds and we are not going to issue Mr. Meekins a refund. We receive many requests for refunds every day for similar situations, and it wouldn’t be fair to bend policy for one and not all.”
What followed was a tsunami of bad publicity and an organized boycott of Spirit. Six million veterans took up Jerry’s cause and did a pretty good job casting Spirit in a bad light.
After weeks of negative media coverage, Ben Baldanza, the airline’s CEO, waved the white flag and waived the policy. Jerry got his refund, and Spirit Airlines made further amends with veterans groups by contributing $5,000 to Wounded Warriors.
In the end, both parties got what they wanted: Jerry, his refund and Spirit, an end to the public beating they were taking.
We can take a couple of lessons from this mess.
First, have your finger on the pulse of public sentiment. The high regard we give our veterans is not a state secret. You’re probably not going fare well in the court of public opinion by picking an unnecessary fight with a dying veteran.
Second, rules are written to create process and order; be flexible enough to break one to do the right thing.
Have you been in a similar situation? How has your organization handled it?