Communication

#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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When discussing public relations or strategic communications, the word “engagement” comes up a lot. It is always interesting to hear what engagement means to a communications professional. It can mean different things to different people, including consultation, education, participation, active discussion and more. Quite often, it is spoken about in hushed tones and feels like the “holy grail” for communications professionals, which it can be – especially in this day and age of online connection through social media…

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dreamstime_xs_25327121Happy New Year. On behalf of the AHA crew, we want to take this opportunity to wish you much happiness and success for 2014.

I had several interactions throughout the holiday season that made me think about how many levels and approaches there are in the world of communication (and in the world!).

I had the good fortune to travel to South Africa in December and, while there, I met several people I will keep in touch with. In our conversations about how to keep in touch, the response was split pretty evenly – half of the people were on social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) and half weren’t.

Some of these people are senior people in organizations; they are the decision makers and influencers. I learned that, for the most part, their preference for staying connected with others is by e-mail, telephone or in-person meetings. But, being curious, I had to ask – where do they get their news and day-to-day information, and how do they stay connected? The answers included reading the newspaper (hard copy), reading the newspaper online, listening to news radio, and watching the morning and/or evening news. It is interesting to note that when I asked about providing their opinions and feedback – or seeing the opinions and feedback in others – there really wasn’t as much interest as I thought there would be. One person responded: “Have you seen some of the comments on news articles? Not only are they uninformed, but they can be nasty, racist and border on bullying. I am not interested in getting into that kind of discussion.”

It’s important to remember that, for a range of reasons, not everyone gets their information or connects on social media. Here at AHA, we spend a fair amount of time in the social media arena – for our clients, for AHA and personally. It’s always good to remind ourselves that not everyone is as engaged on social media as we are. When it comes to planning out a campaign, initiative or project – while social media should always be on the table – it’s also important to identify where the target audience or community gets their news and information. Being clear about this will help you to build an effective plan for where, how and when to reach out with what you want to communicate.

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CrisisBeing prepared for an issue or crisis is important. Even if you don’t think something negative will happen to your organization, take a moment and think about all the worst-case scenarios that could possibly happen. Then, at the very least, outline the chain of command for communication, how you would provide this information to those affected and to other stakeholders – including media – and how you would follow up and ensure that you consistently communicate and update people as the issue or crisis evolves or is resolved.

Here at AHA, we have worked with clients on some incredibly challenging issues and it’s not easy on anyone. Days are long, pressure is high and depending on the issue or crisis, there can be non-stop media attention, which has its own set of challenges. Planning is important. In fact, for many organizations it is crucial, but I know that there are many people out there who will never be convinced of that and refuse to plan.

Below are some key points to consider when creating an issue/crisis communications plan. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, but the information below should get you thinking about what to do in order to be prepared.

Define Communications Vehicles

It is important to know how your key stakeholders (staff, friends and family of staff, customers or clients, community members, board members, media, etc.) should receive information during an issue or crisis. Defining how you will share information – and confirming that it is the right approach for your stakeholder group – is crucial.

Develop a Straightforward Approval Process

Understanding the approval process for sharing information is also crucial. Setting up a complicated, time-consuming approval process creates unnecessary pressure and stress – and the fact is, during an issue or a crisis, there is no time. Information needs to be accurate, it needs to be timely, and it needs to be communicated quickly. Make sure you have put a process in place that lets the communications person have direct access to the CEO, president or senior executive who is in charge at that time. Don’t put barriers in the communicator’s way.

Communicate with One Voice

Speaking with one voice is critical. Sending out information that contradicts other information because there are too many people communicating publicly only confuses and frustrates everyone. Identify one spokesperson, with one or two backup people (should the spokesperson be unavailable). If you need experts to explain complex topics, have them available with the spokesperson and ensure that they only speak on their specific topic. Make sure there is one communications person in charge of the communications team (if you have more than one person). Let that person update his/her team and manage the messaging directly with the senior executive who is in charge.

Be Transparent

Be as transparent as possible and respond to questions as much as possible. If you can’t respond to a media question, explain why you can’t. (For example: “This situation is evolving and that is a matter for the police, fire department, government, etc. to deal with; we are in the process of understanding just what happened and when we do, we will make a statement.”) Don’t hide, avoid questions or refuse to respond to specific questions. That only makes you look guilty or like you are hiding something. Be upfront; if you made a mistake, say so. Explain how it will never happen again and how you are going to make it right. And for crying out loud – apologize. If you messed up and did something illegal, unethical or wrong, take responsibility for it.

Don’t Take Responses Personally

Don’t take negative or critical responses or attacks personally. This is easier said than done – especially when people have been working late hours, under high pressure. Responding emotionally to comments online, to critical people who come at you as you go to work, or even in the coffee line can create a bigger issue. Sometimes the critics are right, and reviewing negative comments can help you to understand the public’s perception – but that is a job best left to the communications team.

Be Ready 24/7

Realize that the news cycle is 24/7 – and during an issue or a crisis, it is relentless. Social media has changed how we respond to a challenge. It is crucial to understand the social media world and to know when and how to provide news and updates, share information and respond.

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DSC_0047Each year, around this time, AHA heads to New Zealand to blog for TRENZblog. This initiative is part of our work with Tourism New Zealand. We spend a week travelling the country and then we attend TRENZ, New Zealand’s largest travel trade show – and we blog our way through the country and the trade show.

Each time I visit New Zealand, I learn both life and communications lessons. Most times, they are intertwined (after all, we all communicate and it is one of the most challenging aspects of life sometimes). Each time, one big lesson stands out. This year, that lesson is about bringing your passion and your “A” game every day. While this lesson can be translated to any profession, it certainly hit home for me in what we do here at AHA.

In the two weeks in New Zealand, I had several opportunities to speak with/interview people in the tourism world. Several people really stood out for me. Over the next two weeks, I am going to share those experiences here on the AHA blog, showcasing what each of them taught me.

The first is Nicolas, the winemaker at the boutique winery, Black Estate, in the Canterbury Region of New Zealand. Nicolas took the time to let us see what was going on just a day or so after the harvest. This is a very busy time for a winemaker, and yet Nicolas let us into the area where the grapes were being squished (not the technical term) and he also spent a good thirty minutes showing us around and answering my questions.

Lesson 1: Be so excited and passionate about what you do that you want to share it.

Nicolas’ passion was clear – as was his knowledge and talent. I could almost see the delight in his eyes as he explained the process. It made me want to support this winery because it was clear that it mattered to him.

Lesson 2: Be patient and open to questions from those who know much less than you.

While I have been known to sip a glass of wine or two now and again, I know next to nothing about the behind-the-scenes workings of a real vineyard. Nicolas answered all my questions, never spoke down to me, and encouraged me to ask more questions. He opened my mind to many aspects of winemaking and he educated me, making me want to learn more about what he does.

Lesson 3: Embrace who you are. Not once did Nicolas apologize for being a small winery. In fact, he was proud of it and confident in the quality of his wine. Black Estate is a boutique winery and it embraces that – it doesn’t try to be a big winery; it focuses on being the best it can be. Not trying to be anyone else.

While these lessons might not seem to be communications lessons – they are. Nicolas lives the Black Estate brand. He is clear and consistent in how he speaks about the grapes, the process, and the art and craft of making wine. And he clearly loves it. His passion shone through and he used humour to explain things to me. He is an excellent communicator when it comes to his wine.

Next up: Fiona and Chris of Hapuku Lodge in Kaikoura.

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