Jun 25

You can check in, but you can never leave


It strikes me that more and more brands are promising one experience but delivering a very different one. Take United Airlines. Please!

My business travel experience has gone to hell in a handbasket ever since United absorbed Continental in a recent merger of equals (to which I reply, 'Ha!' There never has been, nor will there ever be a merger of equals). And, to pour salt in the wound, United is running a multi-million advertising campaign touting such achievements as the industry's newest fleet of aircraft, the most destinations of any domestic airline and, yes, Virginia, a solid on-time performance record. Choke me with a spoon!

In the past few weeks alone, I've suffered back-to-back, three hours delays flying to, and from, Manchester, NH, from Newark Airport, a nifty four-hour delay from Logan and yesterday's cancellation of a flight caused by what a Manchester gate agent described as, 'Weather, or a mechanical problem. It's Newark Airport, so we never really know.'

The world-weary United agent then asked if I'd be willing to fly on another airline to LaGuardia. 'Sure,' I responded. She checked the screen, shook her head and snapped, 'Nope. That flight's already over its weight limit.'

Then, my United experience morphed into an act from the theatre of the absurd. 'I'm going to try and get you to Boston!' the gate agent declared. I was stunned. 'But, I don't want to go to Boston,' I replied. 'I'm not going to risk changing planes with your airline's shoddy record.' She then clapped her hands together and said, 'Well, chop chop. Make up your mind. What do you want to do?' She demanded. I canceled my flight, rented a car and drove six hours to get home.

All of this wouldn't matter if United wasn't bombarding me with ads and airport posters containing such, feel-good headlines as:

– 'It's time to fly!

– 'Life is a journey. Travel it well.'

United is a Janus-faced organization, talking out of both sides of its mouth (or cockpit, if you prefer).

If I were prostituting myself by writing completely false copy about a godawful airline, I'd riff on the classic Eagles tune, Hotel California. With United…..

'You can check in, but you can never leave.'


Nov 21

Already over me

Business travelBreaking up with an airline is not unlike separating from a significant other. The same raw emotions, finger-pointing and angst come into play.

I first met the airline of my dreams, Continental, when they acquired my two former flames, Eastern and PeopleExpress. At first, I wasn't sure what to make of the hard-charging, Houston-based hussy, but I gave her a chance. I had to. Continental suddenly dominated Newark Airport.

And, sure enough, as the years unfolded, the newcomer found a way to fill the voids in my travel life. She rewarded my constant flying. She welcomed me to her presidents club. And, she not only gave me gold elite status but, on international business class flights, she went out of her way to make sure I was content. Yes, I actually used the word content in the same sentence as airline.

I distinctly recall one Continental attendant on a London flight asking me, 'Shall I address you as Steve, Steven, Mr. Cody or sir?' You had me at shall, miss.

Then, as is so often the case in relationships, my significant other found 'another.' In this case, the other man was United Airlines, a big, old-time, deep-pocketed blow hard from the Windy City.

Mr. United swept Ms. Continental off her feet and, just like available overhead luggage space, she was gone. So, too, was her personal service, tender loving care and the feeling that I was someone special.

I found myself mixed up in the midst of a messy merger. My elite status disappeared. My access to the presidents club went the way of all flesh and, instead of asking how I preferred to be addressed, I was told by a rude flight attendant to sit down, shut up and shut off my Blackberry.

All that abuse might have been palatable if the reservation experience hadn't also taken a nose dive. I suddenly found myself swiping my card at a Continental kiosk and being prompted to enter all sorts of alphanumeric codes that, despite my best efforts, often told me to go in search of a gate agent. And, once at the ticket counter of what used to be Continental, but is now Continental about to become United or, may in fact be United, I would be told by a lobotomized automaton, 'Sorry, there's no record here. If you want to fly to Boston, I suggest you buy a new ticket.'

This wasn't just a trial separation. It was a divorce, and a very nasty one at that. I went from adulation to resentment in the time it takes a flight attendant to say, 'The use of approved portable electronic devices is now permitted.'

I wouldn't mind the messy divorce if my former lover didn't go out of her way to ballyhoo her new beau's service and quality everywhere I looked.

The happy couple's tagline line boasted:

'It's not who's merging. It's what will emerge.' And, some of the newlyweds' brand promises included:

– 'Creating the right flight plan' and

– 'Place your expectations in the upright position'

Oh, the pain of it all.

I don't mind a woman (or an airline) dropping me like a hot potato. But, I do mind it when she (or they) pours salt in the wound.

Continental. United. United Continental. Or, whatever the heck you're calling yourself these days, I want you to know something: I am SO done with you.

I have no choice but to fly you (since you OWN Newark), but I will never, ever love you again.

As the Stones sang in Already over me, 'you're so cold. You're so cruel. I'm your man. Not your fool.' Well, guess what, Ms. Continental Airlines about to become Mrs. United Airlines? I'm already over you too.

Jul 26

Baggage carousels. The final frontier.

As if we weren’t already being bombarded by endless advertising every single second of our day, Waiting for luggage a company called DoubleTake Marketing has found a brand new venue: airport baggage carousels (insert link). That’s right: baggage  carousels. Now, there’s a brilliant idea.

According to DoubleTake, more than 70 percent of travelers check luggage every year. (Not this blogger. I need to be physically forced to check my bags.) Furthermore, DoubleTake says the average time for a bag to arrive from a plane to the carousel is 17 minutes. I’d say 45 minutes is more like it. (Note: that doesn’t include the time spent by TSA agents and baggage handlers rifling through your valuables and taking what they please or, as was the case with some disgruntled union workers at one airline, actually urinating on checked luggage).

DoubleTake says “…brands are finding baggage carousel advertising (allows) them to tell a story in a unique and captivating way.” Ha! That’s laugh out loud funny. I buy the captivating part since passengers are literally being held hostage by the airlines as they endlessly wait for their luggage to come cartwheeling down one of those chutes. But, c’mon, there’s no friggin’ way passengers want to see advertisements at, say, baggage carousel #2. Just think back to the emotions you felt the last time you were at baggage claim. I can tell you how I felt: frazzled, angry, tired, grungy and anxious. The latter emotion, of course, was being caused by a steady stream of everyone’s bag but mine barreling out of that black hole at the top of the carousel.
What type of advertiser honestly thinks a pissed off, beaten up, tired as hell passenger will spy their ad and think to themselves, “Hey yeah. I do need to buy that right now!” To wit:

-    It’s been 30 minutes since you arrived at baggage carousel #3 when you suddenly spy an ad, slap yourself in the head and exclaim, “Man, I could have had a V-8!”
-    Some 45 minutes after landing, you notice an ad for Cialis circling around and around baggage carousel #1. You stop worrying about your bag and, instead, think, “You know what? I really was in the mood back at gate 13A. If only I’d popped one of those 72-hour Cialis pills, I’d have been good to go.”
-    You’re at Newark’s baggage carousel #7 when you spot an ad for the New York State Lottery and take note of its signature tagline, “Hey, you never know.” The irony is rich as you think to yourself, “The same could be said for my bag. It could be in Houston, Boise or Phoenix. With Continental, hey, you never know.”

There are bad business ideas. Then, there are stupid business ideas. But, DoubleTake’s belief that advertisers can “…reach both the business and leisure traveler” using baggage carousels plumbs new depths of depravity.

I would never, ever consider purchasing a product or service when I’m in the foulest mood possible. And, I cannot believe any other victim of our nation’s horrific air system would feel any differently. But, that won’t deter DoubleTake from collecting some unsuspecting advertiser’s money.

What’s next for DoubleTake? Advertising along death row in a state prison? Now, that would qualify as unique and captivating (oh baby, would it ever).

I can envision DoubleTake’s trade advertisement now: “Death Row advertising. Why wait? With the rise of DNA evidence overturning so many death penalties of late, there’s a very real possibility some of today’s death row inmates may be tomorrow’s customers. Act now while there’s still plenty of institutional white space available at the Big House. DoubleTake: advertising where you least want to see it.”

Jul 20

From ambassador to vigilante

When United and Continental merged, the move was accompanied by the usual marketing hoopla.  AaaaaaaaaaaaE-mails promising 'increased efficiency,' 'greater service,' and 'expanded routes' were routinely pushed to this long-time Continental customer.

But, almost immediately, I noticed a slow, but steady, deterioration. First, my long-time Gold Elite status simply disappeared with no explanation whatsoever. Then, my regular routes began experiencing far more delays than before.

But, the real clincher occurred over the past few days as I attempted to fly home from Portland, Maine, to Newark.

My original flight was scheduled to depart at 1pm on Monday. At about 6pm Sunday evening, though, I received a trip alert e-mail notifying me the flight had been canceled. No explanation was provided. A second e-mail followed shortly thereafter. It provided a URL and 888 number for me to call "…with any questions." I had a question all right, "How the hell was I supposed to get home?"

We dutifully called the number provided and, after the usual 15-minute wait and countless bilingual prompts, we reached a live person. She told us she'd book us on the next available flight from Portland to Newark. The scheduled departure time was now 7pm on Monday night. Oh, she said our original flight had been canceled because of weather. Yeah, sure.

Once I arrived at Portland airport on Monday afternoon, the Continental trip alerts began pouring into my blackberry. They said the originating flight was late departing Newark, but would only be delayed by five minutes. No, make that 35 minutes. No, wait, make it a full hour. Oh never mind, the plane just arrived. We were told by a gate agent to board immediately so as not to lose our departure slot. Yes ma'am. Will do, ma'am.

The pilot apologized for the delay, but promised the flight would be '….a very short 59 minutes.' About 90 minutes later, the pilot sighed and said, 'Ah, ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed we've been circling for the past half hour.' Damn straight I'd noticed. I was tired and hungry and wanted to get home pronto. The pilot explained that '…weather at Newark had deteriorated and that we had about 20 more minutes of fuel.' Now, that was comforting to hear. What would happen when the fuel ran out? Would be asked to flap our wings?

The pilot came back on the P.A. a few minutes later to tell us we were being diverted in order to re-fuel. Nice. So, now, instead of being home at, say, 3pm Monday afternoon I was, instead, parked on the always scenic Albany, NY, tarmac at 10 pm.

We eventually arrived home at midnight, some nine full hours later than originally planned.

As I deplaned, I noticed the countless placards and banners boasting about the United/Continental merger. They all said the same thing: 'It's not who's merging that's exciting, but what's about to emerge.' Ha! I can tell you what's emerged: a third rate airline that can't get its act together.

Sadly, Continental is just the latest in a long line of brands that promise one sort of experience but deliver a totally different one. As a result, I've gone from being a brand ambassador to a vigilante.

So, caveat Continental. I'll be gunning for you, or United, or whatever it is you're now calling that steaming mess of a merged airline. Keep messing with me and I'll keep spreading news about your delays, disingenuous explanations and diverted flights.

Epilogue: when we met our driver at Newark Airport, he asked what had happened. I told him Newark Airport had been closed because of severe weather and we'd been diverted to Albany. 'Severe weather?' he asked incredulously. 'It hasn't rained a drop here all day long.'"

Jul 05

Evil spirits

I perform stand-up comedy as a hobby.

Every time I sit in the green room awaiting my turn on stage, I listen as my fellow comedians struggle to maintain the fine line between the irreverent and the obnoxious. Some succeed. Some bomb. And, those that do bomb are not only greeted by boos but, even worse, by dead silence. And, trust me, the latter is far worse. Silence tells a comedian, an actor or a brand for that matter, that they’re not worth the time of day.

And, frankly, the new Spirit Airline campaign isn’t worth the time of day either except that it serves as a textbook example of how not to use humor in marketing.  In case you’ve somehow dodged the endless barrage of unsolicited spam from the low-fare discount airline, their sleazy promotions have run the gamut from scantily-clad, pole dancing ‘flight attendants’ who strut their stuff in flatbed trucks going from market to market to frat boy, promotional riffs on the latest political scandal.

For example, during the endless Anthony Weiner scandal, Spirit blasted this very unfunny e-mail:Weinerone And, when the Governator’s reckless ways with his house maid generated front-page news, Spirit jumped on the bandwagon with an ad entitled, ‘Hasta la vista to high fares!’ The text was predictably accompanied by a photo of an attractive young lady in a French Maid’s costume.

Spirit supplements these breaking news one-offs with an endless barrage of daily e-mails sporting such witty titles as: ‘The Red Light Special’ (a trashy tome that trumpets $9 one-way and $17 round-trip fares).

I have three fundamental marketing problems with the Spirit campaign. The first two are obvious:
1.)    Sophomoric humor isn’t funny (unless you’re a sophomore in high school).
2.)    Since they’re neither clever nor witty, the ads end up being nothing more than offensive and stupid. The latter may work for Godaddy.com and Howard Stern, but not for an airline.
3.)    Airlines are a very serious business. Each day they transport thousands of people to and fro in their planes. If, God forbid, something tragic should occur on a Spirit Airline, these ads will be dredged up by the media and used against them (remember how the media savaged BP with its own advertising after the oil spill?).

Reputation management is fundamentally critical because it helps build a reservoir of trust and credibility in the minds of end users. That’s why, despite endless product recalls, J&J continues to finish at, or near, the top of the Fortune and Reputation Institute lists for most admired organizations. The company spent decades making itself synonymous with trust. BP, on the other hand, changed the meaning of its initials (from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum) before it had built a reservoir of trust. Then, adding insult to injury, BP didn’t back up the change with quality assurance programs. Hence, when the oil hit the fan, as it were, pundits and comedians had a field day (‘i.e. Did you hear what BP stands for? Beyond Pathetic.’).

I’m not sure what the polar opposite of reputation management is, but Spirit Airlines is pioneering the craft.

Smart, insightful humor can be a powerful weapon in any organization’s marketing arsenal. And, it can work very well in serious industries too. Just look at Geico (life insurance) and Southwest (airlines). But, crass, offensive junk like the kind being served up by Spirit is akin to whistling past the graveyard. They know they’re over-stepping the boundaries of common decency in an attempt to sell tickets. What they don’t know is how the media will use these very same ads to destroy Spirit’s reputation if, and when, something goes south.

I think the new motto for Spirit Airlines should be: ‘An accident waiting to happen.’”

Jun 09

A tale of two crises

This is a tale of two crises. One was handled flawlessly. The other was badly bungled.

The first dominated yesterday's PR news world and concerned the ill-advised attempt by Delta Airlines to charge returning Afghanistan veterans $200 for their extra bags. Ugh.

A social media savvy vet captured the unfortunate and oh-so-unnecessary airport confrontation between the vets and the “Sorry sir, but rules are rules” airline worker. He posted the video on YouTube and it spread faster than Anthony Weiner's nude pics.

In the blink of an eye, Delta suddenly had a 747-sized crisis on its hands. But, that's when the airline turned on the after burners, fastened the seat belts and weathered the increasingly bumpy ride. A Delta blogger, identified only as Rachael R (is Rachael Ray moonlighting?)  quickly posted an apology AND announced an immediate change in the airline's baggage policy for traveling U.S. military personnel. A simple, yet brilliant move. Crisis averted. Delta and the vets can move on. And, Rachael R. can get back to her cooking.

Now, compare Delta's response with the Bank of America's incredibly, ham-fisted mishandling of a Florida couple's mortgage payment.

Warren and Maureen Nyerges had purchased their foreclosed home outright.   However, while on a foreclosure frenzy, BofA decided the property’s foreclosure was still in force and past due.  So, the bank went on with their foreclosure on the hapless Nyerges. With no other recourse, they hired a savvy lawyer who turned the tables on the bank in a brilliant legal maneuver that would impress even the legendary Mike Lasky of Davis & Gilbert fame.

The couple's lawyer proved the home was free and clear and demanded the bank pay their $2,500 legal fees. BofA refused. So, get this, the lawyer got a court order to go to the local bank branch and take possession of their furniture. Ya gotta love it!

Sheriff deputies and a moving van showed up at the bank. But, the brain-dead BofA branch manager STILL wouldn't comply. It took a full hour before he finally gave Mr. & Mrs. Nyerges a check for $5,772.88 as restitution. This local news clip below is a MUST SEE and should be included in any crisis planning workshop.


Did BofA issue an explanation, an apology or announce a change in their foreclosure policy? Nope. There wasn't even a peep from the massive financial institution.

So, here's an idea. Since BofA has shown itself so inept at managing crisis communications, why not outsource the function to the Delta Airlines team? I'm sure the ailing airline could use the incremental income and Bank of America desperately needs competent PR counsel. Hey, maybe BofA can even convince Delta's Rachael R. to cook the Nyerges a special 'forgiveness meal.'

Apr 28

Does anyone read in-flight magazines?

Do you read in-flight magazines? You know the ones I'm talking about, right? They're shoved into  an airplane's seat back right alongside the evacuation instructions and vomit bag.

Since I've been traveling relentlessly of late, I've decided to pass my time during the endless delays to observe my fellow passengers to see if any actually picked up and read the magazines. No one did. Not a soul. Not the morbidly obese man on my left or the pajama-clad, trailer park denizen on my right. And, I'm positive the toddler sitting directly behind me and repeatedly kicking my seatback wasn't flipping through the articles eitArticle-1200719-005E374800000258-743_468x330her.

This wouldn't matter if airlines weren't relentlessly cutting costs and adding a la carte pricing faster than you can say sleeping air traffic controllers. 

Just imagine how much money every airline could save (and pass along to passengers) if they did away with in-flight magazines. The publications serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever except to show me diagrams of various airports and maps of the world. (So, that's where Ceylon is, eh?)

Back in the mid-13th century when I plied my PR trade as an account executive, securing a placement in an in-flight magazine was a HUGE deal. In fact, most clients considered it an A-level hit, right alongside a Times article or GMA appearance. I guess that's because, in the days before iPads, iPods and laptops became ubiquitous, airline passengers actually read the damn magazines. Nowadays, though, I can't think of a single new business proposal or year-long plan that so much as even mentions gaining publicity in an in-flight magazine.

So, why do they still exist? You'd think one of the more progressive airlines such as JetBlue or Southwest would have banned them years ago, announced the move as a further reflection of their eco-friendly ways and made a big splash about passing along the cost savings in a massive advertising campaign. Nah, that would be too obvious.

Sometimes the easiest solutions are the ones staring you right in the face. So, here's hoping some airline executive wakes up and cancels his in-flight magazine order at the same time he gives air traffic controllers a little more vacation time. The flying public would thank him for both.

Aug 18

Steven Slater, The Reality Show

Today's guest post is by Julie Farin

JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater has become the latest media magnet due to his dramatic  “take this job and shove it” exit from Flight 1052 at New York’s JFK airport last week, following Airplane-exit his public obscenity-filled rant involving a rude passenger who allegedly injured him while retrieving her carry-on baggage from the overhead bin (ignoring Slater’s instructions to remain seated).

Just 48 hours after this well-publicized incident, the social media was all a-Twitter and divided. There were those who called Slater a hero, a man who should have been applauded for fulfilling every disrespected working person’s fantasy.  Others thought him more of a zero, whose actions were reckless and dangerous.  JetBlue, on the other hand, suspended the 28-year airline veteran and two days later issued a light-hearted statement on their company blog basically announcing that they couldn’t comment on the situation due to the ongoing investigation.

I am surprised that JetBlue did not swiftly issue a statement apologizing for their employee’s rogue behavior (right or wrong, there were 100 witnesses who heard his eff-ing tirade over the PA system) while they collected all the facts.  This was the airline’s opportunity to reiterate how seriously they consider the safety of their passengers and their employees, instead of treating Slater’s public meltdown as somewhat of a joke, as the tone of their statement seemed to suggest. 

Clearly, this man was beyond stressed and frustrated by having to deal with the bad behavior of ill-mannered passengers day after day.  But, as they say, it comes with the territory of a job that deals with the public. Perhaps JetBlue should mandate stress-management seminars for flight attendants as part of its on-going training (if it hasn’t already).  For the record, I recently traveled on JetBlue round-trip from JFK to San Diego, and it was a wonderful experience.  In fact, I plan on flying JetBlue again next month.

Regardless, Mr. Slater has become an overnight celebrity with all the traditional and social media attention (buy your "Save Steven” t-shirts here!)    And it now seems that he has hit the publicity mother lode:  Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman has announced he is representing Slater, losing no time fielding offers for book deals, endorsements, and reality TV shows.

Hey, if the Jersey Shore cast’s antics can be celebrated on TV, why not a harried flight attendant? 

Julie Farin is a Public Relations professional based in New York with expertise in TV, entertainment, magazine publishing, and the media in general.  She is a news and information junkie, Godfather aficionado, and proud to admit that John Lennon is her favorite Beatle.

Apr 28

Stranded in Europe

Guest Post by Meghan Prichard, Peppercom UK

I doubt Jimmy Buffett would ever have predicted that his song “Volcano” would become so many people’s theme song over the last week, but many of us really didn’t know where we were “gonna go when the volcano blow.”

April 28 As I boarded the plane April 14th for my first journey out of the country since arriving in England four months ago, trouble was brewing on another island nation 1,000 miles away, erupting later that day into a crisis that continues to wreak havoc on travelers, consumers and businesses alike.

As both a traveler and a consumer affected by the alphabet soup volcano Eyjafjallajokull, I was surprised by the lack of communication offered by any of the organizations I expected would serve as the most salient sources of information—specifically, my flight company and my home country.

There were no resources on the website for the U.S. Embassy in Germany. There was advice on the U.S. Embassy website in the United Kingdom, but it was for Americans stranded in the United Kingdom. I had registered my trip abroad with the Department of State, but received no email updates or suggestions on how to get home.

Meanwhile, Ryanair canceled my flight, which I learned from a prominent link on the website. A day later, Ryanair informed me of the cancellation by email and text message. The airline also offered a free rebooking for the following day. When that flight was canceled, it appeared that Ryanair’s already tenuous communications skills were collapsing. No email, no text, just another ominous link on the homepage.

Ryanair is notorious for its poor customer service, even when not in times of crisis. Any customer helpline number I called promised to charge 60 pence per minute and would undoubtedly cost more than my original flight by the time I got through to someone. Yet any travel alternative promised to cost even more time and money.

Continue reading

Apr 21

The S.S. RepChatter sails into unchartered waters

Since its origins a few years back, RepChatter, the bastard podcast offspring of RepMan, has bravely sailed through turbulent waters to examine such controversial issues as:

– The relevance of the Catholic Church (with guest Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League)
– The very existence of God (with guests Darryl Salerno and Dawn Lauer arguing nay and yay, respectively)
– Toyota’s self-inflicted wounds (with a top Fordham professor)

First Officer Ted ‘Ludacris’ Birkhahn and I have navigated these controversial and often heated discussions with our usual combination of bluster, bravado and complete ignorance (we’ve also ducked and covered when things have gotten totally out of hand. Listen to the Salerno v. Lauer podcast and you’ll know what I mean. But, Ted and I must admit to a certain trepidation in anticipation of our upcoming podcast with Andy Sullivan.

April 21 Andy, you see, manages public relations for bluecollarcorner.com, and is one of the Tea Party’s 365 founding members. To say that Tea Party members are outspoken is like saying the Rolling Stones occasionally tore up hotel rooms in their heyday. The S.S. RepChatter will be sailing straight into a Category Five hurricane named Andy.

To prepare for the epoch-making event, I’ve boned up on the Tea Party and studied the recent CBS News/New York Times poll. As most of you know, the Tea Party’s goal is to reduce the role of the federal government in our lives. That I knew. What I didn’t know was their make-up. The average Tea Party member watches Fox News (Surprise. Surprise). Most are men. Nine in 10 are white. Half describe themselves as middle class. Three in four are age 45 or older. Nearly three-fourths consider themselves conservative (another ‘no duh’) and 39 percent identify themselves as evangelicals (So, I have to believe they aren’t fans of Darryl Salerno’s P.O.V. on God). They despise Obama and the current Congress and adore W and Sarah Palin (although most don’t think the erstwhile Alaska governor should run for president). Last, but not least, nearly 60 percent keep a gun in their households (which is why we’ve asked Andy to join us by phone as opposed to in-studio).

I plan to ask Andy a whole range of questions, including:

– How come you dig Sarah, but don’t think she belongs in the Oval Office?
– What’s with all the guns?
– Is Fox News really ‘fair and balanced’ as advertised?
– Describe the ideal society
– Do a bunch of middle-aged white guys really represent the views of the average Americans (Some 84 percent of Tea Party members say they do)

I’ll have other questions based upon Andy’s responses. And, I’m sure the Ludacris one will weigh in with his usual few non sequiturs. But, what about you? What questions would you like me to ask Andy? Let me know and I’ll be sure to represent my constituents. As for now, it’s full steam ahead. First Officer Birkhahn: be on the alert for icebergs.