Things That Make You Go hmmm…

United airplaneIn my last post, I left off where Paul and I had just agreed to staying in Houston (with no help from United for the hotel), going to Seattle the next day, and then getting a connecting flight to Vancouver – because we thought we had no options.

As we were standing there discussing the very limited options (it seems all United flights are oversold, so when something like this happens, there aren’t many choices for replacement flights), the flight crew that was taking over for the next flight was off to the side of us. They were right beside the lineup of very frustrated passengers – all of whom had missed their flights.

We could clearly hear their discussions – and their jokes about all the people with missed flights. One of the pilots asked someone in the line what was going on and the person explained we were all pretty much stranded – he laughed and said: “Hey – you’ve just spent time in the sun in San Juan – you can’t complain.” Yes, yes, we can Mr. Pilot and you are not helping the situation.

I like a good joke (in fact, I happen to be quite hilarious), but his comment fell flat with everyone. The flight crew continued to joke and laugh and the pilot kept on making funnies about how we (the people in the lineup) probably wished we had stayed in San Juan. I actually wished I had been smart enough not to book a flight on United. It really felt like the issues that everyone in the lineup was dealing with were being discounted and disrespected.

I watched an elderly couple – I estimated they were in their mid-to-late 80s – who were clearly distraught and confused. They didn’t know what line to stand in or what could be done to get them home. No one, not one United Airlines employee, stepped forward to help them. I had a brief conversation with them and got them into the line – I sure hope they got home okay that night.

On top of the concerns about getting home when you thought you would – it was clear that many of the people in line were worried about the cost of a hotel and food. Some were students, some were seniors, and others were young families with children. I felt badly for them. United clearly stated that they were not going to provide accommodation or meal vouchers because this issue was caused by weather (just for the record, it was caused by the fact that our airplane didn’t have enough fuel to circle for more than a few minutes). We weren’t thrilled about having to spend money on a hotel, but we are fortunate in that we can afford it. For those on a tight budget, this was clearly a challenge.

As the person behind the United desk did what she had to do to get us on the flight she said was our best option the next morning, she made it clear how difficult we were making it. She then said to us: “You need to go to the customer service desk to reroute your bags on your new flights. I am unable to do it.”

We didn’t understand why she couldn’t reroute our bags. The customer service desk and the gate desk access the same computer program and we had our baggage tags, but she made it clear that we had to go to the service desk – so off we went like good little order takers (which I think might be a Canadian thing). At the customer service desk, we stood in line for another hour and a half to get our bags rerouted.

While we were in the line, we heard from others that they had run across the terminal only to arrive to hear that their seats had been given away (even though the flight hadn’t closed its doors yet). Another said that the boarding gate had been changed without it being posted, so while they might have made it, with the gate being changed – they didn’t… and that they were never going to fly United again.

When we got to the front of the line and told the person at the customer service desk that we had been sent there to reroute our bags – she shook her head and said: “Why would they do that?” And I had to wonder if it had been done because I kept questioning what could be done better in finding us a flight. Maybe we were being punished or maybe the woman at the gate had just had enough of me.

Then she said – why aren’t you going to Seattle tonight? We told her that the other United person at the gate said there were no flights available. She shook her head again and said, “It’s boarding now. Let’s get you a little closer to home tonight – and get you on an earlier flight to Vancouver from Seattle tomorrow morning.” I wanted to kiss this person for doing her job. My question is – why didn’t the other person do hers? The woman that we dealt with at the customer service desk was the only person who worked for United that seemed to care.

This angel of mercy sorted us out and got us our boarding passes, explained that our bags would never make that flight – but they would make our morning flight from Seattle to Vancouver – and wished us well. I really wanted to hug her.

We hurried across the terminal and fortunately made it just as the plane was boarding. And then we sat there for an hour because of a mechanical difficulty. This pilot at least turned on the Pay TV for the entire time that we were delayed and then for the flight to Seattle.

The next morning, we went to the Seattle Airport and as we were checking in (we were now on a United partner – Air Canada), I realized that I had a bottle of salsa from the airport in Puerto Rico in my carry-on. This would never get through security. So I asked the person checking us in if I could check my carry-on bag at no cost – since the reason I had this salsa in my carry-on was because: a) United made us miss our flight and b) they didn’t get our checked bags to us for this flight. She said that she could check my carry-on but that there would be a $25 charge. I explained the reason why I had to check my bag again… and she said there was nothing she could do. Because I had bought this salsa specifically for Paul because he loved it, I ponied up and paid the $25. So the salsa’s cost had now gone up to $40. Ridiculous.

The highlight of this entire journey from San Juan to Vancouver was the quick, efficient and professional approach of the TSA agents in Seattle. They were exceptional in doing their job, not making us feel like cattle, and getting us through security in a timely manner.

The flight from Seattle to Vancouver is pretty quick. When we hit Vancouver, we went to the Air Canada desk to ask about our bags that weren’t on the carousel. The fellow at that desk was incredibly helpful and said to us: “You were right to come to this desk to get some answers as he glanced over at the person at the United desk leaning on his elbows, staring off into space. It took our bags 48 hours to finally be returned to us after we landed in Vancouver.

Between the flight crew not seeming to care that people were worried and upset, the gate staff person who clearly didn’t do her job and who was rude to me, the flight crew laughing about our inconvenience, the $40 salsa, the cost of a hotel and food, our bags being lost for two days (they went to Chicago), and the fact that almost all United Flights are overbooked – which means if you hit a problem with your flight, it’s extremely difficult to find another flight that you can get on – I am done with United.

In my opinion – #UnitedSUCKS.

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I travel quite a bit for business and pleasure, and I have to say my most recent travel on United Airlines (from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Vancouver) was the worst experience I have ever had on an airline. #UnitedSUCKS (the trending hashtag) should be painted on their airplanes…

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Question mark imageThe world of media relations is getting trickier and trickier. I was listening to a news radio station this morning and they had a counsellor/therapist on to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder and how the shorter days can influence our moods. There wasn’t any real news value attached to the interview, except that we are heading into shorter days. There was no news to report, no survey results, or a big breakthrough in helping to treat people; the interview rehashed the same stuff we always hear.

Interestingly enough, the counsellor/therapist is from a company that regularly advertises on this station. I recognized the company name and about five minutes after the interview, their ad came on. Hmmm….

It’s a fact of life that by being an advertiser, you are on the station’s radar should they need to do an interview about something you know about. But more and more today we are seeing the lines blur, and what would have been called advertising or advertorial is frequently being passed off as editorial. That is a frightening thing to me. We – as a society – count on journalists to be that unbiased source of information. If someone is getting media coverage because they are paying for it – how can they be unbiased?

We all know media companies are having financial issues, and this may be one of the ways they are able to keep their heads above water. But if the way to get good media coverage is to bundle it in with your advertising purchase, then it’s not unbiased media coverage and it shouldn’t be dressed up like it is.

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is back in the media again because a recent video has surfaced showing him rambling drunk at a fast-food restaurant.

People around the world know him as the “Crack Mayor.” In fact, when we were recently in South Africa to connect with a client, we were often asked about him. When people heard that we were from Canada, they usually laughed and asked about the “Crack Mayor.” It happened in Johannesburg, Knysna, Cape Town and Swaziland. It even happened on a safari in the African bush from a person who spends 80% of his life at a game lodge many miles away from the closest town, television or newspaper. It’s clear that Mr. Ford has put the eyes of the world on himself – and by association, Toronto and even Canada.

I think we are all aware of the substance and alcohol issues that Mr. Ford appears to be struggling with. It has been reported that while it is dwindling, he does still have support from some of the factions of voters in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). However, this blog post really isn’t about Mr. Ford – it’s about the responsibilities that we, as communicators, face. What would you do if Rob Ford was your client – or if you were the director of communications for the GTA?

The Rob Ford issue has been going on for some time. In spring 2013, Mr. Ford fired his then chief of staff (reportedly because the chief of staff told him to get help), shortly after his press secretary and deputy communications officer quit. Brother (and City Councillor) Doug Ford’s executive assistant was then appointed director of communications. And, as we all know, since then, media have been having a hay day with Mr. Ford, his antics and his headline grabbing, late night comedy monologue inspiring comments.

We have spent some time discussing the challenges being faced by the mayor’s office and how we would handle ongoing issues such as the ones they continue to experience. Everyone at our PR agency is very dedicated to our clients, yet when it comes to a situation like this – the response always comes around to the fact that this appears to be one of those situations where we would have to resign the account.

From an outside perspective (meaning I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at Toronto City Hall), the issues with Mr. Ford have nothing to do with communication. I can’t see any way a communications person could make the current situation better. And it appears to me that Mr. Ford isn’t listening to anyone’s counsel or advice.

Here at AHA, we have solid issues and crisis communication experience and while we have had our share of challenging clients, we’ve never had to deal with this extreme. Usually, clients come to us (for issues and crisis communication or for proactive PR) because they have something going on that requires our specific expertise and skill set. It’s not always cut and dried or even straightforward. In fact, there have been quite a few times where there have been heated discussions about how to approach communication around an issue and not everyone at the table has immediately agreed with the strategy we put forward. We see it as our job to not only engage in these types of conversations, but to encourage and facilitate them. A good strategy can be outlined, explained and described. It can be laid out in a manner that allows those involved in the decision-making process to understand the rationale and reasoning for the plan. A part of our job is to use critical thinking in reviewing what might work – and to “go at” an idea to make sure it is the right idea at the right time. It’s important to approach communication from different perspectives, opinions and platforms and to work through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s just a part of the work we do (and it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is effective).

We have asked ourselves what we would do if we had a client who didn’t take our advice and consistently went rogue with the media in the way Mr. Ford has. The answer: The first time it happened, we would have to have a respectful, yet frank, conversation with our client about whether we were a good fit for that organization and that leader. We would ask why they weren’t valuing our expertise and skill set when they were paying for it and had brought us to the table to contribute.

As for working with someone who lies or misleads the media and stakeholders – we’d be out. No amount of strategic communications or PR can help someone who lies or purposely misleads. A person who made a mistake and is truly sorry for their mistake or error – someone who is willing to step up, take responsibility, be accountable and make it right – that is someone that you can help. A person in a leadership role (or any role, for that matter) who has lost their moral compass, who doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, who finds a way to justify it, or who just doesn’t care – that’s not a communications issue. It’s an ethics and integrity issue and they require help of another kind.

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Candy CrushCandy Crush Saga is a popular online game played on Facebook and mobile devices (iPad, iPhone and Android). Players try to match three or more candies in order to gain points, remove obstacles and meet goals. Currently, the game developers state that the Facebook version has 485 levels and the smartphone version has 425, with new levels being regularly released. Players need to unlock levels as they play. To do so, they can ask friends to help, they can pay for more “turns,” or purchase assistance in the form of “boosters.”

As much fun as this game is (and it is fun), Candy Crush also provides some valuable PR lessons if you look past the little animated intros, flashy candy explosions, and the feeling of victory when you move up a level. Below are the top five PR lessons learned from Candy Crush.

You Need a Strategy Specific to Your Goal

In order to move up levels in Candy Crush, you have to develop a strategy that is specific to the level you are on. The obstacles and goals change at every level, and the strategy that worked on the last level might not work on the next one. Without a defined strategy, you’re just moving little pieces of animated candy around, hoping for a Candy Crush miracle. And don’t just try to do what you did successfully last time; a cookie cutter strategy doesn’t work in PR or on Candy Crush. In PR, it is crucial to identify and understand the specifics of your initiative, project, organization and culture – as well as the timing and external events that may impact it. You need to identify your goals relevant to those influences before defining a strategy. One size does not fit all.

Community is Crucial

In Candy Crush, you can ask friends for help – for additional lives, moves or to help you get to the next level. You can also respond to the requests from friends or you can help out of the blue and randomly send them lives and moves. In fact, Candy Crush makes it easy to be a part of a community. It asks you who you want to help. Now, if your approach is always to ask for help and never give it, eventually your Candy Crush pals are going to get tired of you and stop responding. Sound familiar in PR? Great PR is a two-way street – with your community, your stakeholders, media and bloggers, on social media networking sites, at events and tradeshows, with your colleagues… everywhere. If the only reason you connect is to ask for something, you will wear out your welcome pretty quickly. People will stop responding. No candy for you!

Money Talks, but it’s Not Always Authentic

On Candy Crush, it’s easy to purchase more lives, more moves and “booster” help (and it’s encouraged, since that’s how the game developer makes money). Sometimes, spending the money works; but if your only success comes from paying for it, at some point it loses its authenticity – in PR and on Candy Crush – and no amount of messaging or positioning makes it any different. I did a poll and no one I spoke with admits to spending money on Candy Crush.  In the world of public relations, we use a range of communications vehicles, including those we pay for such as advertorials, ads (including Facebook ads), promotional PR, brand journalism pieces, and partnerships/sponsorships – and they work. However, media relations, blogger relations, social networking conversations and discussions are key to authentically connecting with stakeholders – and heaven help you if you try to pay for that. The reason this type of coverage is successful is because it is earned, not bought. PR has evolved and today it definitely includes more elements that are created and paid for (which can be a great thing), but no matter what – great communication has to be authentic, transparent, engaging and informative if you want stakeholders to care. A blend is good, but don’t buy your way into everything; sometimes you just have to do the work necessary to earn it.

Don’t Share Too Much About How Great You Are

Lots of people who play Candy Crush allow the game to share their score on Facebook – if they achieve a high score, which friends they have just surpassed with their score, etc. It gets really annoying after a while. It’s too much. In public relations, if all you do is tell people how great you are and what a success you are, and your only communication is to show them how you think you have “passed” them in any given area, you lose any meaningful connection. Think before you brag about how great you are. Sharing a genuine success is one thing; populating your social media feeds with shameless (and usually empty) self-promotion doesn’t achieve anything. In fact, it could make people wonder who you are trying convince about how great you are.

It’s a Process

In Candy Crush, you get past one level and do a little happy dance and bam, the next level is right there to conquer. Did I mention there are more than 400 of those levels? That’s how we live our lives as PR professionals – and we love it. We celebrate the successes, review the lessons learned, and then turn our focus to the next challenge. It’s an ongoing process that we accept and embrace. It’s a never-ending need to move forward, to improve, to meet our goals and set higher ones, and to take our organization or clients to the next level. That’s what makes us leap out of bed in the morning ready to crush it!

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