What Were They Thinking?

By Ruth Atherley

Social media can ruin your future. It’s that simple. Social media puts your reputation at risk when you post something inappropriate, illegal, immoral, unethical or just plain nasty. A perfect example of this is a small group of Harvard University accepted students – who engaged in a private Facebook chat where they shared sexually explicit memes and messages that also targeted minority groups. They aren’t going to Harvard now. Their admission has been rescinded, according to the Ivy League school. Their futures aren’t so bright now.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and it won’t be the last. Heck, there are people who were stars in the world of PR and social media who have been taken down because they posted something unacceptable – often thinking they were being funny.

One of the elements of social media that I appreciate – in both my personal and professional life – is how it allows you to see someone for who they truly are. Years ago, before social media (remember that?), people could show one face publicly and be someone else entirely behind closed doors. Not anymore. Social media has erased that boundary – and I think that is a great thing. You see, even if people are trying to showcase themselves in a particular way, if it isn’t authentic to who they really are – at some point – they will slip up, let their guard down, respond to something… and they will get caught. And many of those people should be unmasked for who and what they really are. If there is a theme of ugly beliefs or behaviours that surface, then they deserve what they get.

What about the person who makes a genuine mistake or the one who behaves poorly but learns from it? Social media is unforgiving – what you comment on or post lives on forever. Even when you take it down, it’s likely someone has a copy or screenshot of it. Social media never forgets.

When we work with clients on social media, we tell them that whatever they post on social media should be done with thought, respect and consideration. It’s perfectly reasonable to enter a discussion, dialogue or debate to disagree. But imagine if what you wrote was run across a jumbotron screen or published on the front page of a national newspaper – would you be proud or ashamed? Not just of what you said, but also how you said it and how you engaged with others. Sometimes, we need to be the “grown-up” if a conversation turns nasty or aggressive – to respectfully stand up for what is right or, if appropriate, to disengage.

This isn’t just professional advice; it’s personal advice too. Be careful out there. Your reputation is at risk.

Read more

By Ruth Atherley

We recently had a potential client come to us for a social media strategy and tactical plan. They also wanted us to implement the plan. As they laid out their goals, targets and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the first six months, we worked to respectfully, but honestly communicate that what they expected was close to impossible – for anyone. (And that anyone who said they could achieve those targets was either misinformed or overselling themselves.) In addition to unrealistic goals, they had an incredibly small budget. They were adamant about their expectations and didn’t want to hear our feedback about the realities of what could be accomplished. It was clear that this client wasn’t a good fit for us, so we respectfully declined this contract.

We love social media and have an in-depth knowledge of the power of social networks and online engagement – but it takes resources, effort and time to build a community, to create engagement, and to facilitate communication and dialogue. We’ve been including social and digital media in our strategic communications plans since we opened our doors over 14 years ago. And we have learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to do social and digital media well.

View social and digital media as a component of your overall communications strategy.
No element is a stand-alone and there will always be overlap. It is crucial that you don’t just repost the same content on all of your networks. Change it up a bit to speak to the specific community or stakeholders, use different images, and stagger the posts from one network to another.

Don’t try to be all things to all people.
Unless you are a large consumer product or service company – limit which networks you use. It is impossible to keep up with multiple social media networks and do it well. Pick your top one, two or three and do those well first – and then see how you can expand out.

Create an editorial calendar.
Have it include all of your communication vehicles, networks and outreach. Identify the events, initiatives and information you will share and work through it like a magazine would work through their editorial lineup for the year, quarter, month and week.

Put enough resources into it to do it right.
Having someone manage your social media from the side of their desk doesn’t work anymore.

Respect the fact that your social media channels are a megaphone to the world.
Copyedit, proofread and fact check what you are saying. It matters.

Give yourself time to build a community and to create engagement.
Don’t expect that you will have thousands of followers the first week you are active on a social network. It doesn’t work quickly – and you want a good community that will engage. That takes time.

Give more than you take.
Engage with others. Comment, retweet and share. If you aren’t actively supporting others, you can’t expect them to support you.

Keep the algorithms of the social network in mind.
On Facebook, your followers might not see a specific post. Comment on your own post or respond to a comment to help bump it up a little. Don’t repeat a post three or four times a day – that becomes irritating to your audience – and don’t try to trick them by changing up one thing like an image. Your audience will see through that. If you want to make sure they have seen your post, find different ways to showcase it that isn’t irritating and repetitive.

Repurpose content.
Spread it out over a range of channels and social networks – plan it out with the editorial calendar.

Social and digital media are important parts of a communications strategy. To do it well, you need time, resources and action.

Read more

By Ruth Atherley

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know about the challenges that United Airlines has experienced recently. While one incident garnered the most news coverage and criticism on social media, several situations that could have been avoided, had they been handled differently, have come up and have shown the ugly underside of the culture of the organization. And it has cost them dearly – financially (their stock has dropped in the hundreds of millions) and with the long-term damage to their brand.

The biggest incident, with a 69-year-old doctor being physically assaulted and dragged off the plane, didn’t need to happen. In a nutshell, United had overbooked a flight and four passengers who were on the flight were informed that they had been bumped – to accommodate crew who needed to get to the destination airport to get onto another flight for work. Three accommodated and one said he wasn’t going to deplane. Since he refused, they called in the Chicago Department of Aviation Security Officers and they physically assaulted him and dragged him off the flight.

Let’s just replay it in a way that would have had a different outcome.

BEFORE passengers board the flight, the airline offers the most they can for four people to give up their seats. They have the captain request this over the loudspeaker, explaining how important it is. If this doesn’t work, they book their crew on another flight (even if they have to pay for seats on another airline or use a private plane to get them there).

There is some chatter that passengers were already on board before United realized that they needed the four seats. At that point, it should have been too late. Another way for the crew to get to their destination should have been worked out.

At the heart of this, there appears to be a culture of not caring about the customer (in this case, the passenger). Unfortunately, this is something that’s more typical than not these days. Here at AHA, we do a great deal of issues communication. I am always interested when something like the United issue plays out. When it does, I do a deep dive to understand what happened and what could have been done differently. Having said that, we are always cautious about criticizing how communications are handled in these situations, because unless you were in the room when these decisions were made, you really don’t know the whole story.

From a great deal of first-hand experience and extensive research, I can tell you that at the heart of so many issues like the one United is experiencing, there is a moment when someone in the company could have stepped up and done the right thing – but didn’t. And that choice can cost the organization a great deal. Many of these “moments” (that lead to a big issue) just needed an employee (whether in leadership or not) who could have de-escalated the situation rather than fuel it. A staff member could have said: “No, we need to get this right.”

What United needed at that moment was leadership from someone who cared about the passengers and who could see the bigger picture. Someone who could have approached the captain of the flight with the problem and a solution.

A situation, such as the United issue, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. From the hundreds of horror stories about United being shared online, there does appear to be a toxic culture at the airline. I have had personal experience in being treated poorly by United – see three blog posts: one, two and three). Typically what that means is that there is a problem at the senior level – and that permeates an entire organization and its culture. That is a leadership issue and a communications problem. And when you have a nasty culture, eventually it is going to play out in an issue, one way or another.

The fact is, someone on the United team who was in a position of power, influence or even respect, on that plane, could have had stepped forward and done the right thing and worked to defuse the situation instead of calling in the security officers. The key here is that the person who stepped up would have had to have felt empowered to do this. And given the outcome, you have to think that they didn’t.

Think about it. By upping the dollar amount to get someone to give up their seat – for a few thousand dollars – they could have found four people who would have been happy to get off the plane.

I did a TEDx talk a while ago about how doing the right thing is often much less costly. This continues to be true.

And United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, didn’t do the company or its brand any favours when his first statement after the incident didn’t acknowledge the injuries of the passenger or the violent way the situation was handled. In fact, it appeared, from a leaked internal e-mail, that he was applauding how it was handled and was blaming the victim.

United needed some strategic public relations immediately after this incident. It’s just as important to note that while addressing this incident with concern, compassion and showing how it would never happen again was crucial – United is dealing with a much bigger issue in their organizational culture. This isn’t a one-off situation with them. While I expect that every airline has people who have had a bad experience, United is known for its poor customer service and lack of care and consideration for its passengers. This problem goes much deeper with United and, from Munoz’s initial reaction and the internal memo he put out, this attitude comes from the top.

I saw an interesting blog post on Facebook the other day that told a very different story about Alaska Airlines and how they handled a delay situation. It’s worth a read – maybe someone should e-mail the link to Munoz.

Read more

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.

Read more

#UnitedSUCKSIn my last post, we were just about to board our flight from San Juan to Houston to connect to Vancouver. In writing this installment, I realized it was going to take three blog posts to cover it all. This story of poor service has too many elements and I don’t want to jam them all in and overwhelm you.

As we waited to board the plane, the United representative at the gate announced that the flight was overbooked and they were offering $300 per person for someone to take a later flight. I thought that was interesting because the United flights we took to get to San Juan had been oversold too and they were trying to get people to take an offer and switch to a later flight.

We were happy to get on the plane and be heading home. The disorganized, ineffective manner in which United handled passengers at the San Juan airport had sucked the energy out of most of us. No one was happy and people were frustrated, hungry and they just wanted to get to their seats.

The flight was reasonably uneventful. I worked, read a bit, and kept checking the map on the screen to see how close we were… Then the pilot announced that the Houston Airport had quite a bit of air traffic due to rain and we would be in a holding pattern for 12 minutes. No problem, I thought – we have an hour and a half and our next flight was at a gate that was close to our landing gate.

Then, 15 minutes into our holding pattern, he announced that we needed to continue holding for a few more minutes…

Then, 10 minutes later, the pilot said that we were diverting to a nearby military base. Hmmm. Now I am sure he must have said to refuel, however – almost no one heard that part – everyone in the seats around me started asking questions and worrying – Why was this happening? Is there some kind of security risk? What is going on? Why are we landing there – will they bus us to Houston? Will I miss my connecting flight? It was all quite concerning. Yet no one addressed the clearly worried and upset passengers or clarified anything.

Upon landing, the pilot announced that we would simply refuel as quickly as possible and fly back to Houston. Why did we run out of fuel in a holding pattern for 25 minutes?

The time started to creep closer and closer to our connection flight’s boarding time and we began to worry. I asked a flight attendant, who was passing by my seat, about this and she said: “I don’t know – you will need to speak to someone when we land.” Really? On West Jet and Air Canada flights, when it seems passengers might miss their flights – the flight attendants are on it and even if they don’t have the answer, they communicate on a regular basis so people know they are doing their best. We received no information from the crew – and many of the passengers on this flight were worried about missing their connections, as Houston is a hub for United.

While we were refueling, the pilot announced that he had turned the Pay TV on for the passengers – as a gift from him for all of the delays. And I thought – that is a nice gesture. For the 45 minutes while we were on the ground, we had access to movies and TV shows at no charge. As soon as the plane hit the runway and went back into the sky, the free TV was cut off. Really? We spent another 30 minutes in the air – getting back to Houston International and circling the airport again. I think they could have left the TV on until we landed in Houston. Don’t you?

When we landed, trying to get off the plane was chaos. Unfortunately, some of the passengers either forgot or had no manners and were trying to push their way off the plane so they didn’t miss their flights.

Once off, we stood in a line at the desk at the gate – about an hour – to have the person there tell us she could get one of us out of Houston the next morning at 6 a.m. and one of us could go to San Francisco that evening and go to Vancouver from there late the next day. As United was claiming that we missed our connection due to “weather” and not due to “refueling” and that they were not going to pay for a hotel, we didn’t see the point in getting one room in Houston and one in San Francisco.

I could clearly tell that we were frustrating the woman behind the counter by asking her about better options. She sighed quite a bit and she rolled her eyes twice at my questions. Her voice held no helpful tone – it was sharp with the sound of frustration – directed at us because we had the gall to miss our flight. Let me explain here – we are polite and courteous… even for Canadians. We say please and thank you a lot. We say – would you mind checking to see if this is possible… we keep our voices calm and respectful. We knew she was having a tough day too and did our best to be sympathetic to her situation. However, that didn’t go both ways. There was absolutely no need for us to be treated like were a pain in her butt.

Finally, she said she could get us on a flight that night to Chicago and another flight the next day to Vancouver that would get us in later in the evening. That wasn’t great either. I asked her if there were any flights to Seattle (you know – that major U.S. city just south of Vancouver) and she looked at me like I had three heads… I admit I am making an assumption here, but I don’t think she actually knew where Vancouver was … She looked up Seattle and said she could get us on a flight there the next morning at 10 a.m. and then from Seattle to Vancouver later that afternoon. We would arrive in Vancouver at 5 p.m. We’d miss a day’s work, have to pay our dog sitter for another day, have to get a hotel room, and pay for all the meals. Thinking that this was our only option, we said yes.

In our next installment, I will tell you about the United pilot who thinks he’s funny, the $40 bottle of salsa and how the TSA provided the best customer service of this whole trip.

Read more
%d bloggers like this: