Empty promises from US Airways

Exit sign in airplaneI didn’t expect to follow up on the previous post about brands destroying themselves through broken promises with another example of poor customer service so soon, but US Airways is too blatant to ignore.

You may be aware that US Airways is undergoing a merger with American Airlines and will be the surviving airline. It also will be the biggest. There has been much news reported about how this merger will benefit investors, the airline industry and US Airways employees. You don’t see or hear much about the impact on customers other than speculation about fares. And I can see why US Airways doesn’t advertise its customer service – because it stinks.

My brother experienced this first hand just a couple of weeks ago. He booked a flight that required a change of planes in Charlotte, N.C. His originating flight departed late because of weather and he landed about 10 minutes late. Incredibly, the plane sat at the arriving gate because – according to the pilot – there wasn’t an agent at the gate to direct departing passengers to connecting flights.

My brother said that people on the plane were yelling to the flight crew to let them off the plane. The pilot announced an apology and said he had called three times for a gate agent.  They all waited, standing in the aisle, for 12 minutes.

When passengers finally were allowed off the plane, my brother ran for his connecting flight. Great news – the plane was still at the gate! But no, the agent wouldn’t let him board because the doors had just closed. He asked her to find him a hotel. She told him no, his delay was caused by weather, which the airline has no control over and doesn’t compensate passengers for. He told her the delay was from waiting for 12 minutes to exit the plane and if it weren’t for that hold up by US Airways, he would have made it on the connecting flight before the doors closed.

The agent refused so he had to find and book his own hotel at a cost of $150 and was rebooked on a flight the following morning.

I started tweeting about how US Airways was trying to use bad weather on one leg of the trip to explain its poor gate service and get out of refunding my brother for a hotel bill he should never had to incur. This is not an unusual tactic used by airlines, which I pointed out in one of my tweets.

Suddenly, my brother heard again from a US Airways “customer service” representative, who this time admitted the airline was at fault, but said they still wouldn’t refund his hotel expense because the airline only reimburses when there has been a mechanical issue. Except this is not what the US Airline website says:

Non-diversion cancellations and missed connections

When a US Airways flight on which the customer is being transported is cancelled or causes a missed connection, due to reasons within the control of US Airways, creating an overnight stay for the customer, US Airways will provide one night’s lodging. US Airways will pay for:

  • Hotel room (US Airways will not cover: room service, alcohol, or movies, laundry or other hotel services)
  • Ground transportation (if not provided by the hotel)
  • Passengers without baggage will be reimbursed upon presentation of receipts for reasonable incidentals such as toiletries needed until they are reunited with their baggage

US Airways will not provide hotel accommodations when a flight is cancelled or causes a missed connection due to circumstances beyond our control, such as weather or Air Traffic Control decisions. Additional exceptions where US Airways will not provide hotel accommodations include:

  • When a customer’s trip is interrupted at a city which is his/her origin point, point of scheduled temporary stay or his/her permanent domicile.
  • When the destination designated on the customer’s ticket, and the flight on which the customer is being transported, is diverted to another city or airport in the same metropolitan area due to weather or other causes beyond US Airways’ control.

In cases where US Airways will not provide one night’s lodging, US Airways will provide passengers a list of hotels/motels, which offer a distressed rate when flight(s) are cancelled.

Whether or not this is legally binding is not the point. It constitutes a brand promise that US Airways has broken. I posted a link to this on one of my Twitter posts and, guess what – my brother got another call from US Airways. This time they offered to pay $75 of his $150 hotel bill.

Getting a full refund for a delay US Airways finally admitted was fully within its control and at fault should not require passengers to play Let’s Make A Deal for US Airways to honor its promise.

Assuming the merger goes through, passengers can expect this kind of “service” to continue. And we as the flying public are apt to see US Airways ad touting size and routes  – but not customer service.


Bad customer service destroys brand relationships

One of the best aspects of social media is that it has motivated companies to become customer focused. To attract and retain business, companies today had better be on their A-game as far as customer service goes or be exposed for it on online. Every contact between customer and employee is a reflection of the brand and vital to the brand image. Customers will only tolerate poor service for so long before abandoning the brand.Broken promise concept.

The eighth annual Accenture Global Consumer Survey found, not surprisingly, that broken promises are a top area of frustration for consumers. According to the survey, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of respondents indicate it’s extremely frustrating when a company delivers a different customer service experience from what it promised upfront. Seventy eight percent of consumers say they are likely to leave when they encounter such broken promises.

A woman’s clothing store has lost me as an online customer. This store has the worst service I’ve ever encountered. I ordered a gift card for my sister for Christmas one year and the store took three weeks later than the promised delivery date to get it to her. When I called to inquire about my order, the “customer service” representative could not have been more unconcerned if she tried. She offered no explanation, no apologies and, obviously, no service.

A year later, I placed an online order for two blouses and opted to have it shipped to the physical store to take advantage of free shipping. Email confirmation said the store would contact me when my order was in. Weeks went by without any further communication from the retailer. Three weeks later, I finally called about my order. I learned my order was at the store and had been since 5 days after the order was placed.  Contrary to the email confirmation I’d received, no one had called to let me know my order was in. The “customer service” representative I spoke with blamed it on store personnel and told me if I didn’t pick my order up within 3 days the store would ship it back.

That was the point at which I said good-bye to this retailer. Two consecutive screw ups is two too many. Especially when there are so many other options available. Clearly this store does not have its people, systems, functions, processes, leadership and front lines aligned. My advice is to cease all online ordering activity until you do. Otherwise, prepare for an exodus of customers.


FDA cigarette labels test public’s fears

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is using a classic example of  “fear appeal” to change the behavior of smokers.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration photo

Fear appeals use threats of highlight the negative consequences of not heeding the warning to change attitude and/or behavior. Remember the “Brain on Drugs” campaign back in the ’90s, where a fried egg represented the damaging effects of drugs on teenagers’ brains?

Or maybe you remember this “Don’t Drink and Drive” fear appeal:

Now the government is rolling out new and more graphic warning labels on cigarette packs that aim to show the dangers of smoking through images such as a diseased lung, a smoker wearing an oxygen mask and an emaciated cancer patient. You can view them on the FDA site.

According to USA Today, the new labels represent the most sweeping anti-tobacco effort since the surgeon general’s warning became mandatory on cigarette packaging in 1965. In addition to the grisly images, cigarette marketers also will be required to place 1-800-QUIT-NOW numbers on new packaging, the newspaper said.

“The goal: Slash consumption among the nation’s 43 million smokers and prevent millions more, especially teens, from ever starting.”

But will this particular fear appeal work?

Fear appeals are advertising messages that attempt to create anxiety in the targeted audiences to adopt a recommended response to the threat. Such fear-based advertisements are widely used in health-related communication situations such as health promotional campaigns and social marketing advertising.  The American Cancer Society’s “My Sister Accidentally Killed Herself” ad is one example.

While ads using fear appeal can be effective, as previous campaigns have shown, inappropriate use could also cause consumers to refuse to give their attention to and turn away from such advertisements when they feel intimidated, or even irritated.

Not surprisingly, tobacco companies oppose the new labels. It’s interesting that opposition also is coming from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Advertising Federation (AAF) who are concerned it could “set a very dangerous precedent for all other marketers – that the government can tell companies what they must say and portray in their advertising,” according to the ANA.

What do you think – will these labels influence your decision to smoke? Do the advertising groups have a good point, or do you think their opposition stems from something else?


Why Burson-Marsteller deserves to be shunned by the entire PR profession

Gee, thanks Burson-Marsteller for giving the entire PR industry a black eye with your sleazy work for Facebook.

In case you haven’t heard, Facebook has admitted it asked Burson-Marsteller to plant negative news stories about Google. The smear campaign was designed to attack Social Circle – Google’s most direct challenge yet to Facebook – by claiming the service will collect and release data without user authorization.  Burson-Marsteller’s claims on behalf of its secret client Facebook that Social Circle violates people’s privacy was determined to be “exaggerated” and “largely untrue.” (See The Daily Beast’s account) The whole thing backfired when it was exposed earlier this week.

Trying to do damage control, Burson-Marsteller quickly apologized and admitted it should have never accepted the job to begin with. While this might help the PR firm to hang on to its other clients, it is not going to turn around the negative perceptions now being attached to the entire PR profession.

Public relations is rooted in building long-term partnerships based on mutual trust. This means that delivering on promises, doing what you say you will do, aligning actions with words, saying what you mean and meaning what you say are vitally important behaviors. In my opinion, once you lose trust, you also lose the ability to communicate and lead among a public that’s increasingly intolerant of unethical public relations. Therefore, “walking the talk” is paramount for PR practitioners in terms of public trust.

Burson-Marsteller knows this. Which is why the agency’s actions are infuriating and inexcusable. Those of us in PR who conduct ourselves ethically and professionally are now left to clean up the bad taste Burson-Marsteller has left behind.

Explain and apologize all you want, Burson-Marsteller. Good luck in getting anyone to believe you.

What do you think? Will it be business as usual for Burson-Marsteller once this “blows over”?


Celebrity endorsers aren’t going away despite the Sheen-like risks

Actor Charlie Sheen public escapades makes this a good time to talk about the use of celebrities in advertising. Sheen was featured in Hanes commercials, which were dropped when negativity about him intensified. He follows a list of celebrity endorsers – Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Kate Moss, Michael Phelps, Chris Brown, Brett Favre – who ended up being brand liabilities instead of champions. Don’t expect this to deter advertisers from using celebrities, though. Why? Because they draw attention to and help shape perceptions of the brand.

One local example is Reliant Energy’s use of NFL Hall of Famer Troy Aikman in TV spots. Aikman’s agent tries to rope him into endorsing a dental gun, while Aikman practically begs for a shot at representing Reliant Energy. See for yourself:

For the Reliant Energy brand to be tied to an athlete like Aikman, whose performance as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys was nothing short of electric at times, is an excellent fit. Consumers likely will infer that Reliant, like Aikman, is competitive, reliable, credible…and delivers even under pressure.

Linking a celebrity endorser to a brand is not without risk, however. Besides undesirable behavior and/or sudden loss of popularity that can diminish the celebrity’s marketing value to the brand, there are any number of potential problems:

  • Celebrity endorsers can be overused by pitching so many products that there ends up being no specific product meaning, or consumers believe that celebrities only do it for the money and don’t believe in or even use the product.
  • The celebrity’s star power can overshadow the brand to the point where consumers can’t recall the advertised brand.
  • A mismatch of celebrity and brand is unbelievable or illogical to consumers.
  • Some consumers can feel that celebrities’ salaries to appear in advertisements add a significant and unnecessary cost to the brand.

What this all means is care must be taken by brands so that celebrity endorsers are evaluated, selected and used strategically, as well as closely monitored.

A recent survey by Starch Advertising Research indicates we can expect to continue to see celebrities featured in print ads because doing so produces a 9.4 percent lift in readership than ads without a celebrity endorser.

Do you think celebrity endorsements are worth the risk?


PR is so much more than getting press coverage

If you, like many people, equate public relations with getting news coverage, then you just don’t understand PR.    

True PR is about helping to create positive, mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics (internal and external). Media relations is just one of many ways of doing this. If you’re limiting your PR efforts to media relations, then you’re not getting the full benefit of PR – or your money’s worth for that matter.

Effective PR, like marketing, starts with a strategy and a plan. You’d be surprised to know there are PR “experts” out there delivering four or five bullet points of advice and calling it a PR plan. I don’t think I’ll ever forget one that I saw that was a creative brief being passed off as a PR plan.

A PR plan should include:

  • an assessment of the external environment
  • a view of the industry
  • background and history about the organization
  • analysis of the product/service/issue
  • a look at promotions, including past successes and failures, competitors’ activities, and ad/PR/marketing strategies, themes and campaigns
  • a look at market share
  • a review of the competition
  • available resources, including current attitudes and opinions that are beneficial
  • a SWOT analysis
  • a thorough breakdown of public profiles
  • specific, measurable, time-bound objectives to support the accomplishment of a goal
  • a selection of communication channels and tactics for reaching each public

The news media is just one option that’s available. It’s certainly not the only one and, depending on the plan, it may not be the best choice. Staged events, workplace communication, social media networks, tv, radio, video, billboards, blogs, landing pages, and mobile communication are some of the other many PR channels that are available.  Solely relying upon media relations, or leaning on it too heavily, probably won’t achieve the best results possible as far as desired stakeholder responses. A posting last summer on the Mopwater blog explains this well:

People so often say “get me on CNN” or “get me in the New York Times” without thinking it through…it’s like why? Why do you need to be on CNN? How does that fit into your strategy? How is that helping you meet your goal? It’s just an empty wish you think you should have because everyone says you should have it. UNLESS you think CNN is the key to showcase all the work you’ve done up to this point and you’re ready to move to the next place.

So make sure the PR advice you’re getting has examined all of the options – and don’t confuse PR as simply news coverage.


Don’t settle for weak marketing/communication objectives

How do you determine whether your marketing, communication or PR efforts are working? You track and measure results, right? But what if you don’t have specific objectives to measure? Then whether or not things are truly working is just a guessing game.

I’m surprised by the number of “plans” that I’ve seen that lack measurable objectives or any stated plan for measurement, and I’m continually amazed that CMOs and CEOs accept these from their internal staff or outside agency.

Objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable and challenging. Many marketers make the mistake of having directional objectives such as “increase brand visibility” or “generate new leads” or “increase name recognition.” The problem with these kinds of vague objectives is there’s no way to tell when they’ve been achieved or even if they have that there’s been any worthwhile impact. For example, does a 1 percent increase in name recognition achieve the objective “increase name recognition”? I suppose that there was any increase would mean that it does, but in most cases a 1 percent increase isn’t significant enough to satisfy management – especially when you weigh this against what was spent to achieve the 1 percent increase.

Setting measurable objectives means assigning numbers, for example:

  • “Increase name recognition by 10 percent”
  • “Increase target market online sales 25 percent”
  • “Capture 15 percent market share in the IT conference segment”
  • “Increase blood supply by persuading 35 percent of non-donors to donate blood for the first time”

Moving objectives from generic and vague to specific and measurable makes accountability possible and gives a more realistic picture in terms of results.

If you’re being presented with plans that don’t have measurable objectives laid out, at the very least, send them back and ask for revisions.