What Were They Thinking?

#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.

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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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protest angryI wanted to write a quick update on the example I used in my most recent reputation management and issue communication blog post.

According to a Global News report, Centerplate, the company whose CEO Desmond Hague was seen in a video kicking a dog in an elevator, has released a statement. It says that they do not condone animal abuse and are undertaking an internal review. The statement also says that Hague has agreed to undergo counselling for anger management issues and has pledged a significant, personal, multi-year financial commitment to help support the protection and safety of animals.

In theory, what is outlined in the statement are the right things to do. However, I find it interesting that this statement comes out after many of the company’s clients, such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Mariners, have made their own statements of concern about this issue.

As I said in my earlier blog post, I don’t know what Centerplate’s strategy is for managing this issue. I don’t know the specifics of why it was decided to respond via statements. My opinion is based on how it is being played out in a public forum.

However, having said that, it is clear that this reactive, hiding behind statements from lawyers and PR people is not working. People are angry, they are calling for Centerplate’s contracts to be cancelled, and are threatening to boycott the food that is sold at stadiums that use Centerplate. It’s time to change up the strategy and get authentic about this.

Is Hague or his PR team reading the tweets and comments on articles about this issue? Centerplate’s website is still up, but the list of clients has been taken down. That’s not transparent.

To me, the Centerplate statement is clearly reactive and having these statements coming from lawyers and PR people is not helping. Not to mention that social media sites have been taken down and the website is being changed, so we can’t find specific information about the clients. They have taken an “information out” approach, instead of finding a way to engage in a dialogue. (It would be a very tough dialogue.)

Hague needs to stand up and visibly get in front of this – and take the heat. In my professional opinion, he needs to do a video where he acknowledges what he did wrong and fully apologize. He needs to do a media tour and go to the breakfast shows or morning news in the cities where Centerplate has clients and talk about his mistake, what he is doing to make it right, and what he is doing to help abused animals. And he needs to do it now. I don’t want to hear “we are doing an internal review and he has pledged money” – I want to know what is being reviewed, how much money he is going to contribute, the names of the animal organizations, and that he realizes that this is unacceptable behaviour.

He needs to do more than send out these statements to media. I want to see a real person who is truly sorry for what they have done and realizes how horrific his actions were. It seems that many other people do too.

It feels like he is hiding behind his legal and PR teams and using statements that he doesn’t have to actually speak about what he did. In my opinion, until he steps forward and shows us that he realizes what he did is wrong and takes full responsibility for what he did, the anger of the stadium food-buying public isn’t going to stop.

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Reputation management

(Editor’s Note – August 27, 2014: Ruth Atherley has written a second blog post to update the situation.)

 

Many people are outraged after seeing a video showing a man in an elevator kicking a one-year-old Doberman pinscher dog and then hauling the dog off the elevator by its leash.

If you don’t know about this deplorable act, you can learn about it here.

Desmond Hague, CEO of American corporation Centerplate, Inc. (which has contracts with BC Pavilion Corporation, the Crown Corporation responsible for operating BC Place and the Vancouver Convention Centre) was identified as the person abusing the dog (who is named Sadie) in the video and he has apologized, via a letter through his legal counsel, to Global Television.

Responding to this type of issue is quite sensitive – and never easy for a PR or communications team. While I wasn’t in the room and don’t know what was discussed or recommended by Centerplate’s PR team, I do have to say the response of a letter coming to one media outlet through Hague’s lawyer isn’t good enough. The fact that the CEO’s corporate Twitter account and the company’s Facebook page were shut down tells you: a) how strong reaction is to this incident of animal abuse and b) that the company – and by the company, I mean Hague – doesn’t want to hear what we, as the public, have to say.

I work on a lot of issues and have had many where a high profile individual had to step forward, take responsibility and say he/she is sorry for their actions. One of the key elements of the apology is that it has to be authentic; the person truly needs to be sorry for their actions – not that they got caught. People aren’t stupid – they can smell when it is fake and can see through someone who is saying the right thing without meaning it. To me, Hague’s letter stinks to high heaven. I don’t believe him and I don’t think many do.

I also found it interesting – and I have searched for it – that no one from his personal or professional life has stepped forward to defend his character. A good person who makes a bad decision will have a community of people who will jump into the fray on social media and support that person. There wasn’t a peep or a tweet or a public FB update out there that did that.

Hague should have immediately made a video where he apologized and explained himself to us and publicly to Sadie’s person (apparently Sadie is not his dog). He should make a sizeable donation to the BC SPCA or another group that helps abused animals. And he should take the heat on social media – by shutting it down, he has effectively locked himself in his office and closed the curtains, refusing to speak to his stakeholders. That is not how you handle an issue. While Hague can pull his Twitter account, he can’t get rid of all of the tweets about this issue and it is clear that it touched a nerve.

There are also questions that remain unanswered – the SPCA said that when they went to the apartment, the dog was found in its cage, surrounded by the stench of urine, and her food and water bowls were out of reach. There is more to this case than what happened in the elevator – which was bad enough.

Success in reputation management and issues communication only comes when there is integrity, authenticity and a commitment to making things right. If you are facing an issue because of the actions of an individual or a group of individuals, and the person or persons just want it to go away, you can put lipstick on a pig for the short term… but in the long term, it doesn’t work. Our world is far too connected. The person or persons involved will do something else that puts them in the spotlight for the wrong reason. Videos in elevators, cell phones with videos, social media, electronic messages… it will come back to bite you – lipstick and all.

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scale, lawyer, judgeI have quite a few journalist, lawyer and communication friends on my personal Facebook page. The current issue facing Trinity Western University (regarding the opening of its law school and its controversial policy about same sex intimacy – being called discriminatory by many) is a big topic of discussion right now among a wide range of people. At the heart of this issue is Trinity Western’s requirement that its 3,600 students sign a community covenant forbidding intimacy outside heterosexual marriage. This is being called discriminatory against gays and lesbians.

The Ontario Law Society has rejected accreditation and Nova Scotia voted to approve (but only if the school drops the controversial policy prohibiting same-sex intimacy). The BC Law Society has voted to accredit the school, although a petition has been circulated that got more than twice the required number of signatures necessary to force a special general meeting of the society’s whole membership, within 60 days, to revisit the issue. According to an article in The Vancouver Sun, that vote has been confirmed by the Law Society of BC and will take place.

This issue will create huge challenges on a national scale if there isn’t one clear decision to accredit or reject accreditation for the school. It also threatens a new national mobility process that allows lawyers licensed in one province to practice across Canada.

Bob Kuhn, president of the university, has said: “We feel the Ontario and Nova Scotia decisions are legally incorrect.” That key message is strong. And Trinity Western University has an advantage because they are speaking with one voice, with cohesive positioning, and a clear and direct goal – to launch a law school.

On the other side are individual provincial law societies – each with their own messaging relevant to their vote of whether or not to accredit. It is individuals or groups of legal professionals who agree or don’t agree with what their law society decided and the national mobility process comes into play as well. That means disconnected – even opposing messages – multiple voices and conflicting goals.

This is an incredibly important issue that has several crucial elements in the mix – religious freedom, discrimination and the ability of lawyers who would graduate from this school to function as a part of a diverse society. From a communications perspective, Trinity Western University is one up on those fighting against accreditation. Those opposing this law school need to find a way to come together with one voice and to define solid positioning and messaging so that they can clearly communicate why this law school should not be accredited and what this means for equality.

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