Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Air Canada shows impact of customer-facing employees on PR

This isn't another I-hate-Air-Canada blog post - there are many of those already (don't believe me? Google it).

This is a blog post about how a company's customer-facing employees are just as important to its PR as its PR people (if not more).

The back story (OK, a bit of a rant)

On Sunday evening, my family and I had the misfortune of having to fly home to Winnipeg from Ottawa. (For the record, that's a misfortune because of the circumstances of the travel, not the destination!)

It was a terrible night weather-wise in Toronto, which was the site of our connecting flight. Terrible weather is out of the airlines' control, and I completely understand that flights sometimes have to be delayed as a result. But how an airline handles its customers when things get hairy has an enormous impact on how they see the company.

Our flight to Winnipeg was originally scheduled to leave Toronto at 9 p.m. Because of weather-related delays elsewhere, our Ottawa-Toronto flight arrived late, and we were worried we'd miss the connection. We asked about it as we exited the plane, and were told to ask the customer service agent who'd be waiting for us at the top of the jetway.

That agent told us to go to the same gate for the same time as she'd provided the man in line in front of us, who'd given a different flight number. I asked her to confirm that was right; her response: "Here, I'll write it down for you."

We arrived at the gate she'd indicated, and it was indeed boarding another flight. I asked the woman working that gate, who told me her job was to load that flight, and that I'd have to find the departures board to get my answer; she was also too busy to tell me where that board was.

As I looked for the departures board, I saw another employee on the phone at a gate which didn't have any flight listed. I stood there for a few minutes while she pretended not to see me, and was then told "Look, I can't help you. I was just passing by here and needed to use the phone."

I found the board, and our gate. When our flight finally boarded an hour late (not Air Canada's fault: remember, weather), it was approximately 10 p.m. When our flight actually pulled away from the gate for our flight, it was midnight.

In between, our Airbus 320 full of hot, cranky customers sat at the gate, without air conditioning on, waiting. And waiting.

Every 20 minutes or so, we'd get an announcement over the PA system reassuring us that the delay "shouldn't be too much longer now" or something to that effect. At one point, they added that we were just waiting for the pilot.

Waiting for the pilot?

After well over an hour, another pilot who was on our flight to travel home to Winnipeg after a 15+ hour day of his own came on the PA, and explained that our pilot's previous flight had been diverted to Ottawa due to Toronto weather, and they'd only found this out as we'd finished boarding.

More than an hour earlier.

While we were grateful that someone had finally respected us enough to tell us what was going on, the content of his announcement was infuriating: somewhere along the line, someone had decided that while these poor suckers on the plane were going to have to sit through a very uncomfortable couple of hours, it was better to leave them all there on the plane than to go to the trouble of letting them off and then re-boarding.

It's not like we'd pushed away from the gate and would have to drive back in: the gate door was open, and we could easily all just have walked off. (At least, that's how it seemed to us as we got progressively angrier: if there's some Transport Canada regulation preventing it, they could have done themselves a favour by telling us that.)

A woman sitting behind me began to sound panicked about an hour into the wait, telling the flight attendants she was about to pass out from the heat. Their response: "We'll be coming through the cabin shortly with a water service." The temperature in the plane got so hot that when the pilot did finally arrive and turn on the air conditioning, we could see the condensation in the air, like when you exhale on a cold night.

The best timing of the night award went to the flight attendant who, immediately after the announcement that we were waiting for the pilot (without explanation yet as to why he was delayed), came through the cabin offering headphones so we could enjoy the on-board entertainment system while we waited... for three dollars. Credit cards only, please, we don't take cash. I'm not making this stuff up.

What does all this have to do with PR?

I attended a presentation years ago at an IABC International Conference in New York City, by a Swedish PR guy who talked about the role of customer service in defining your company's brand.

He gave an example that struck home, and has remained with me since. He pointed out that his wife doesn't love him because he issues a news release every morning at breakfast extolling his own virtues: she loves him because of the way he treats her. He shows concern, he takes out the garbage and helps with the kids, he is interested in her and what interests her, he makes her laugh -- it has little to do with messaging or positioning or tactics.

His excellent advice: corporate PR departments need to realize that our customers' relationships with our brands work the very same way. As he put it, if your customers are having a bad experience of your brand in your stores or at your events (or in your airplanes), nothing you can say in a news release is going to change their perception of the brand.

So, pack up the PR department and go home?

Of course not; rather, his advice was for PR to realize that our customers have far more interactions with our front-line employees than they ever do with the products of the PR department -- so we should prioritize employee communications in our corporate communication strategies.

Employees who understand their role in defining the company brand, who understand what customers need, want and expect, who are motivated to give those customers a good experience, and who are empowered to do so, will have a far greater impact on your company's reputation than anything else your PR department will ever do.

It's entirely possible that there were reasonable explanations for all the decisions my fellow travelers and I cursed Sunday night; but even if there were, no-one told us. So our impression of Air Canada's customer service was set.

Customers are a fickle bunch. Over the years, I've had plenty of uneventful (i.e. good enough) flights on Air Canada, and have even experienced excellent Air Canada customer service for myself (a flight I try to forget, on which my then-infant daughter threw up all over me and flight attendants did everything they could to help me and mitigate the mess for my fellow travellers).

But Sunday night, as my now-three-year-old looked at me, eyes glassy, little face red as a tomato and hair soaked with perspiration, and said "We coming down for a landing?" before we'd even left the tarmac, none of that mattered.

Unfortunately for the companies which serve him/her, a customer's impression of a brand is only as good as his/her most recent interaction with it. So PR folks are well-advised to make sure employee communications is at the top of their strategy list.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Arizona state senator learns: no such thing as a small potatoes interview

A YouTube video of high school student Keith Wagner's recent interview with Arizona state senator John Huppenthal about cuts to education funding reveals a politician who likely believed a student journalist interview to be low-stakes, not worthy of much preparation.

I'll bet he sees it differently now.

The three versions of this video I found on YouTube (one longer, one shorter) have attracted, so far, more than 281,600 views -- far more than Huppenthal likely expected to be reached by the student's assignment.

Before the Internet, politicians (and other public spokespeople) did interviews with large media outlets and small ones, each of which had a relatively defined audience.

An interview with a reporter from a small-town newspaper would normally only ever reach an audience in that small town -- or maybe a few bored out-of-town visitors. And an interview with a high school student might even be seen less as a serious interview than as a community relations gesture.

In a classic 1990s episode of Seinfeld, Jerry learned the hard way that, even before the Internet, an interview with a relatively small media outlet didn't necessarily mean the story would be confined to its audience, if the news was interesting enough. And now that we have all the tools of Web 2.0, interesting stories are that much easier to share.

This summer vacation, Sen. Huppenthal might consider catching up on his Peachtree TV viewing, familiarizing himself with YouTube, and getting some media training.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"You don't need social media."

Don't be this guy.

I'm in Regina at the national conference of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), an event which I attend every few years, and which always leaves me with a renewed passion for our profession. This year it's even more exciting for me, as I pick up information and resources that'll be helpful to my students, as well.

In addition to all that good stuff, today I picked up a little knowledge that surprised me a bit, but which actually means good things for my students. And what was it?

That there are still PR pros ignoring (or is it denying?) the influence of social media.

I attended a session this afternoon given by Joe Thornley and Martin Waxman, two of the three hosts of the PR podcasts on Inside PR. Their presentation, "Social Media Trends to Watch," gave an overview of the impact social media are having on the way we communicate and on the practice of PR, and was pretty well-attended.

From quick show-of-hands polls Thornley and Waxman did during the session, it appeared that a significant portion of the crowd was not yet active in social media other than LinkedIn, which it seemed a majority had used.

Just so there's no misunderstanding...

I don't think everyone should be using social media (yet). Social media are only effective in reaching audiences which use social media (or are influenced by those who do). If you know your audiences don't use social media, it would be irresponsible to be investing significant client resources in them.

The folks who came to this session without much experience with social media were doing exactly what they should be doing. They came to find out what the big deal is about, and to learn how these tools can be used, which will help them be better counsel to their clients than they would be if they were unaware of the potential social media offer.

But then... overheard in the elevator...

In the elevator back up to our rooms after the session, a number of the people who'd attended started talking about social media. "Oh my God, that stuff just went right over my head," said one. "I don't think we really need to know about all that," said another. And a third: "Oh, you don't."

You don't?

They then reassured each other that it's just very niche groups using social media, and that if they aren't targeting those groups, they don't need to worry about it.

Don't believe it.

Unless you plan to retire next week, don't believe that you can ignore social media if you want to be competitive in the job market, and if you want to be able to provide solid strategic advice to your clients.

While not every audience uses social media, and only audiences using social media will be receptive to PR efforts that employ them, a good PR counsellor needs to know about them and how they work in order to provide sound advice.

That advice may well be to direct resources to other efforts – traditional media relations, special events, community relations, whatever – but unless you understand what's out there and how it may touch your client's audiences, there'll be a blind spot in the counsel you provide.

Making yourself aware of and conversant only in the issues and tools you know to be of interest to your audiences at this moment in time is like wearing a suit that only has a front. If your audience stays in that perfect spot right in front of you, you're fine. But if anyone moves, you'll be... exposed.

And one thing all PR pros should know is that someone always moves.

Ignore social media – or any significant communication tool – at your peril

Now may not be the right time for your client to be undertaking social media efforts. But maybe your client's business will change; or maybe your client's audience will change; or, maybe, you may just want to go work for someone else someday. Someone, that is, whose audiences are talking about – and wanting to interact with – your client online.

In any of those cases, my colleagues from the elevator will be out of luck – and a practitioner who's more open to embracing change in communications, like a recent Red River College CreComm grad, for instance, will be waiting to step in.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Guest post: “This must have been a communications problem”

Written by Manitoba communicator Greg Burch

I think every professional communicator has been on the receiving end of this kind of feedback at one time or another. If you have not, let me assure you it is just a matter of time. It comes with the territory. When I saw this article, I felt strongly for the poor communications folks at public health agencies across Canada who must have put in a major communications effort in support of the public vaccination campaign to combat the H1N1 influenza virus. Melanie was gracious enough to allow me to share these thoughts with the readers of her outstanding blog. So here we go…

The article implies that the H1N1 vaccination campaign was a “bust”. Based on the statistics cited, the resources expended and the outcome achieved, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. In the list of the three key failings of the H1NI campaign, the communicators get top billing for failing to communicate that the vaccine was safe. Ahead of inter-governmental dysfunction, no less. In Canada, that’s saying something. Ouch.

Don’t get me wrong, like any other profession, PR practitioners can make mistakes. We’re human, after all. There were several policy errors that contributed to the challenges faced by the vaccination campaign too. Inconsistent policies lead to inconsistent messaging, and in any situation this will cause confusion. The article definitely touches on this.

But even without these problems, the H1N1 project would have been in trouble before it even got off the ground. In fact, I am surprised people thought it would do any better than it did. You can debate whether the $2 billion for H1N1 mass immunization plan was worth it in hindsight (personally, I think it was), but given the context this project was launched in, it was a miracle the vaccination rates got to the level they did. I know there are those who question the safety of adjuvants for whatever reason, but this was hardly the key factor.

Why do I say this? To succeed, a communications plan must start with the facts as they are, not as people wish they are. Anything else breeds confusion and a major gap in credibility. It seems obvious. When it comes to H1N1, it was missed in a big way.

The context established by officials of the World Health Organization early on in the pandemic created a serious credibility gap and no PR professional was going to bridge it. WHO officials were making statements, speculating and taking policy steps that simply were out of touch with the experience of people. Did people get sick? Yes. Did people die? Yes, and it is very sad. One simply has to look to isolated communities in Northern Manitoba to see the impact the H1N1 strain had on some communities.

I would never want to minimize the loss or impact on anyone who was affected. But the fact is that influenza does take lives every year, quite a number in fact. H1N1 never got to the point in the public imagination where it appeared any worse than regular, seasonal influenza. This is a testament to the hard work of many, many health care professionals. But it is also very clear that H1N1 was not avian flu, and certainly nothing like the Spanish Flu.

WHO officials, with their speculation, ominous announcements and invocations of “level 6” and other emergency-ese were wholly out-of-step with the general public perception. The liberal invocation of worst-case scenarios by the WHO (this article has a nice summary of some of them) caused fear of the worst. But the worst never came, spawning opinion pieces like this one. What a surprise that vaccination rates did not hit expectations. Throw in the other challenges experienced by the clinics, doubts in the populace about vaccine safety, and the sheer inconvenience of the lineups, and of course rates were low.

The credibility gap around H1N1 issue was very significant from the outset. Doubts filled the vacuum. To discount this, and feel instead that the safety of the vaccine was not communicated is seriously flawed conclusion in my opinion. You cannot communicate effectively without credibility. You have to be grounded in reality. Even now, the WHO continues to employ their unduly threatening, still-a-pandemic approach in interviews, prolonging and enlarging the credibility gap they have established. The safest adjuvant in the world will not overcome this.

So to the PR professionals of Canada’s health field: keep your chin up! You frankly did a great job given the circumstances. I hope national and international decision makers will find a way to look in the mirror as well as looking at the messenger, and draw lessons that will serve us better in the event these policies and plans are needed again in the future.

Greg Burch is Director, Corporate and Employee Communications at MTS Allstream in Winnipeg. He can be reached at

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Want credibility? Credit your sources!

At Red River College, where I teach public relations and freelance business management, we have strict rules around academic integrity and honesty. We're in the business of training future professionals here, and professional integrity is at the core of success in any field -- especially PR.

Presenting someone else's ideas as your own is plagiarism, and it's not treated lightly in academia. Here at Red River, students caught plagiarizing others' work can be flunked out of a course and/or suspended from their studies altogether.

But what happens in the professional world?

Well, you can flunk out there, too.

As you may remember, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper came under fire a couple of years ago for having delivered a speech that appeared to have been plagiarized from one given by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard two days earlier. His speechwriter quickly admitted to the plagiarism and resigned his position, having publicly embarrassed himself, the Conservative party, and the Prime Minister -- not to mention many Canadians.

While cases this high-profile are few and far between, plagiarism happens all the time. While some may get away with it for a while, many don't -- and when that happens, whether the plagiarists realize it or not, their reputations suffer.

Why am I writing about this now?

Here are two tweets that turned up in my Twitter timeline last week from two different users, in the order in which I received them.

Note the date/time stamps -- the second followed the first by more than a day.

Do you believe it's coincidence that these two Twitter users had the same witty thought and expressed it in exactly the same words? Or do you think maybe the writer of the second ripped off the first, adding the little winky face for originality?

My first instinct is the latter. I may be wrong -- maybe the writer of the second tweet just forgot to add the "RT" and had no intention of presenting someone else's thought as their own. Had that been the case, a quick follow-up tweet saying something like "oops! I forgot to add the RT!" and crediting the original author would've done the trick.

It so happens that the author of the second tweet is an established PR professional in a major American city. I'll admit to having been shocked to see this from him/her; I'll also admit I've stopped following him/her on Twitter as a result. This one little Twitter indiscretion has torpedoed this person's credibility, at least in my mind.

The social media community expects better.

In the communities that have grown in and around social media, like in most communities, there are wackos, there are silent watchers, and there are everyday people from all walks of life who share their thoughts, ideas and observations. While there are dishonest people who take advantage of the opportunity for anonymity to spread vitriol and take advantage of others, social media culture is overall open and honest, and relatively intolerant of bullsh*t.

Just have a look at the content on many blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and you'll see posts calling out politicians, organizations, celebrities and companies on perceived unfairness, dishonesty, and disingenuousness. Numerous major companies know the misfortune of social media users having aired evidence of their poor customer service for the whole world to see. In many ways, social media participants take up the role traditionally played by mainstream media in challenging the powers that be -- in the words of CNN's Anderson Cooper, "keeping them honest."(Interested in the pursuit of social media plagiarists? There are Twitter accounts and blogs devoted solely to exposing them.)

Be honest.

While we read all the time about how basic English grammar is being destroyed by SMS texting, Facebook and Twitter, don't think the same laziness is accepted with respect to personal integrity. (I'll argue all night long about how grammatical laziness isn't acceptable either, but that's another post.)

Because so much of the exchange in social media takes place online, where people can hide behind false identities if they choose, honesty and integrity are just as important for legitimate members of the community here as in the "real world." Without those, the information and exchanges made available through social media are worthless, since no-one knows whom to trust.

So if you come across something on Twitter (or a blog, or Facebook, or MySpace, or anywhere else) you'd like to share, do so: but make sure you credit its author.

Otherwise, like Aesop's boy who cried wolf, you'll soon find no-one believes you about anything.