Public Relations Tactics

Editor's Corner

August 1, 2014

A longtime friend of mine was recently in town on business and we met up for dinner. Somewhere during the meal, I made the mistake of telling Scott how stress-free my last few trips had been — particularly with flights.

He didn’t say much, so I kept rambling about the time that I got bumped from the extra-legroom section to a middle seat and only received free headphones as compensation. The horror!

After a moment of silence, Scott, who travels for a living, launched into a lengthy monologue detailing a litany of airline customer-service woes that elevated my blood pressure just by hearing them.

Scott was fairly nonplussed about the years of delayed flights and out-of-commission lavatories. It was a way of life, and he seemed resigned to it. He smiled thinking about how many frequent-flier miles he had stockpiled.

I thought about Scott while reading an article in the July 9 Wall Street Journal about how airlines apologize to their customers — partly because they have to. The Department of Transportation fines air carriers for not responding to customer complaints with “substantive” answers within 60 days.

Handling complaints is also a crucial part of the airlines’ business — a good apology can turn an angry customer into a loyal one, while a bad apology often makes the situation worse.

Southwest Airlines, fined $150,000 last year for failing to respond to a large number of complaints, reportedly has 200 agents handling customer grievances. United — which had the highest rate of complaints filed at the Department of Transportation among major airlines during the past three years — has a team of about 450 employees handling general complaints, plus another 400 responding to gripes involving its frequent-flier program, and about 100 more answering letters and emails related to baggage problems.
The article provided solid advice to communicators who may be part of the apology process for their respective organizations. For instance, airlines say that they try to make their apologies conversational and personal. “We’ve gone completely away from corporate-speak to personally showing empathy,” said John Romantic, a managing director at American. At United, spokesperson Rahsaan Johnson said, “We try to be empathetic to the customer but not sound insincere.”

But too often, apologies state the obvious and avoid responsibility, said Edwin Battistella, an English professor at Southern Oregon University and the author of “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.” Good apologies, he said, identify what the transgressor did wrong, take responsibility, and either state what will change in the future or offer some form of compensation.

I need to ask Scott about his experience with airline apologies the next time that I see him. Of course, I may not want to bring it up.

Not coincidentally, this issue of Tactics features thoughts from several PR professionals working in travel and tourism. Our features begin on Page 12 with a Q-and-A featuring Jesse Davis, APR, director of international public relations for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. We also hear from PR leaders at Travel Oregon, the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, Salamander Hotels & Resorts and PRSA’s Travel and Tourism Professional Interest Section.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Tactics and The Strategist. He joined PRSA in 1994.


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