I love Fermanagh, I just love it, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth (coming a close second to Donegal) and I miss it often. I’m lucky in that I have had years to fall in love with it, visiting countless times. I left school at 16 and worked in a shoe shop in Antrim town, a place you probably don’t need to visit, and the less said about the shoe shop the better. Though, in all fairness, there is probably a blog post on the strange and wonderful people that crossed our doors.
One of my colleagues became a great friend in a very short space of time and when she moved to Enniskillen we frequently visited for drinks, dancing, and laughs. But mostly drinks. Fermanagh gave me my Best Man and one of my closest friends, I knew Doc as Doc for years before I actually knew his name, I’m sure I stayed in his house not actually knowing his real name (It’s Paul). It’s that kind of place. Fermanagh gave me friends for life, thousands of stories, more hazy memories than I can truly comprehend and it was responsible for a significant amount of vocabulary based confusion.
Take the word ‘shift‘ as a prime example. What does the word ‘shift‘ mean to you? It means a whole other thing in Fermanagh. Trust me. For me, shifting is moving something or someone out of your way.
‘That bag shouldn’t be there, shift it for me will you’
‘You’re in my seat, shift over there please’
‘Get a shift on you lazy sod, we’re going to be late’
I could go on, but you get the picture.
Shift, in Fermanagh, is finding a dark corner, a member of the opposite (or same) sex, to share that dark corner with and doing things no self-respecting 18 year old would dream of telling their mother. Or years later writing in a blog that has a tendency to be serious.
Well readers, I had no idea. I was horrified when that came up. Horrified.
You’ll not be surprised to know that after the initial embarrassment, the abuse I got from friends, the blushing and the whooping I was very interested in the idea of shifting. It seemed like the kind of thing that was right up my street at 18 drinking cheap booze in Mirage nightclub. (And yes in retrospect, that was as bad as it sounds). Yeah, shifting was right up my street, or right up Chippy Street at any rate. Mostly up Chippy Street as it happens. What I’m getting at is that language, how you use it and how the intended audience receives it, is crucial. Take United Airlines.
After a video emerged of a passenger being forcibly removed by airport police, bleeding from a head wound inflicted during the altercation that was entirely of United’s making, the United CEO delivered the most ham-fisted, shockingly miscalculated public statements I think I’ve ever read. At least since their last one.
The passenger was reaccommodated.
United needed to move four staff between airports, something they do all the time, as any airline does, and on a fully booked flight moved to offer some people money and a hotel room to wait for the following days’ flight. Three people took up the offer and when no one else bit the staff on board went through their hats to pick the name of a passenger to be removed. No doubt you’ve seen the video. The gentleman in question was dragged off the plane and by all accounts needs reconstructive surgery.
The first disaster statement, the re accommodated one, was followed up by a leaked statement given to staff that included the words “he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent”. Belligerent. That’s how United described a customer whom they had just assaulted, an assault the world witnessed by the time the statement had come out. By the third statement, the third one, the tone had changed somewhat.
“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.” (Bold mine)
The world has seen someone being dragged off one of your flights, bleeding from facial wounds and it takes your organisation three statements to find some compassion, Three. There were protests. The fourth and seemingly final statement, posted to their site, was much more open, more approachable and read like a company that actually listened.
Then, not a few days later, United are back in the press because they apparently didn’t want to assist a partially disabled, 94-year-old grandmother and moved her from a fully paid for business class seat to economy. The grandmothers family paid for the business class seat as they thought it would be more comfortable, it would seem United staff, excuse my language here, couldn’t be arsed. They offered a partial refund and yet another pithy statement that was clearly designed to cover their ass.
Whatever work they said they were doing post the Dr Dao incident needs to happen very quickly. Because it would seem their staff need all the help they can get. To date I haven’t been able to find a comment on the most recent story, I’m not sure, its hard to keep up, of a scorpion falling out of an overhead locker. Really.
Bad Public Relations is not a new phenomenon for United.
They have repeatedly failed in how they manage how the world sees them. There was the leggings issue from a few weeks ago, where three children were denied travel because they were wearing leggings. Children in leggings, imagine that. They defended the decision while their competitors and the world at large laughed at them and derided them. It was brutal.
There was the now infamous United Breaks Guitars incident. Dave Carroll and his band watched in horror as their guitars were thrown from the United Airways plane. Dave wasn’t particularly well known, the quality of the song is questionable, the quality of the video belies its micro-budget and by now, that video has had almost 18 million views.
There’s a book.
There’s even a speaking tour.
Each time United Airlines has opened its public mouth in the last few years it has repeatedly made the situation worse; caused even bigger gaffes and offended even more people. The most recent statements from the company are ham-fisted, ill-advised, unsympathetic and almost entirely devoid of any self-awareness. The responses are robotic, the language calculated and cold. They’re following policy. A policy that allows you to buy a ticket, board the plane to your allotted seat and still be removed.
Ignoring, for the purposes of this blog and nothing else, that the airline industry in the US is one of the most distrusted industries in the country, that competition is non-existent as there are essentially four companies controlling it, that overselling seats is common practice and that they can, legally knock you down and drag you from a flight, one of the things that make these united stories run and run is language.
Surely, if a company wants to build trust, build loyalty and show a face to the world that even begins to hint that they might care about clients, customers or grandmothers, their language needs to be immaculate? Surely terms like ‘reaccommodating’ need to be assigned to the dustbin of PR speak and their tone moulded to build empathy even if their organisational ethos is to just pack em high and fly?
When your company becomes a meme, when William Shatner joins in on the online abuse, when your competitors line up to give you a kicking, when they school you in customer service, surely there must be some impetus to stop, take a long hard look at your business model, shift things up a gear and bring in a new PR team? (As it happens, I know a few cool cats looking for work)
See what I did there?