Dear Southwest Airlines: You Still Don’t Get It

Not so much, Southwest.
Not so much, Southwest.

Here’s an update on my ongoing issues with Southwest Airlines. I was, in fact, DM’d on Twitter by someone two days ago (it’s important to note that this occurred ONLY after I wrote my last blog post, put in in four places and it went pseudo-viral):

Ok.  That was way later than when I needed Southwest to respond, help me find my medications, my charging cords, my glasses, etc.,  (see last post), but it was a start.  So I sent them my confirmation number and got this DM this morning:

DM from @SouthwestAir
DM from @SouthwestAir

What wrong with this

Although they responded, here’s what’s wrong with this picture:

  1. Congratulations on recognizing that I filed a baggage report.  I did that at 10:00pm on July 21st in the Omaha airport.  That was six days ago.
  2. I picked up my bag at Reagan National on Monday afternoon, July 25 at about 3:00pm.  As simple check of the baggage database would reveal this.  Why are you asking me something that you should already know?
  3. Yesterday, on July 26th, 2016, was when I got the DM asking me if I got my medications “so I can submit the receipts to [their] baggage team.”  It’s almost tragically comical that I sent this tweet:


Please get a clue, guys

My concern was not receipts, reimbursement nor the FIVE hours that it took me haggling with the insurance company to pay for a five-day supply of meds (along with the entire co-pay for a 30-day supply to the tune of more than $100) while in the middle of helping my friend move in 102 degree heat.   I was concerned about my heart going “poof” and ending up six feet under.  I conveyed this concern repeatedly via social media (Twitter and Facebook) as well as in probably more than 20 conversations and urgent messages left for baggage claim in Omaha and Chicago Midway.   Yet surprisingly, I did not hear from anyone until my last blog post got pretty popular.

Moreover, no one cared then, in fact, if you recall, on four occasions when I got someone on the phone at Midway baggage, the HUNG UP ON ME and let the subsequent call to to voicemail.  No one cared at the 800 number to put me on hold to see if THEY could reach anyone at baggage.  All I heard was they would “send a message to Chicago.”  No matter how desperate I was.  No matter how much I pleaded.

So now, Southwest, do you actually think that my concern is solely getting “submitting receipts  to the Baggage Team” (note that they did NOT say “for reimbursement”) nor did the person address any of the other things that I HAD to buy like an $84 power cord for my computer so I could continue to make urgent (and unanswered) pleas on social media?  Or extra clothes and a host of other items?


Where I am now

I don’t like doing this.  I sure hope that someone at Southwest is smart enough to not just read that I am angry, but to read the entire background.  I am angry, and I am also a social media pro, guys.  And I do not intend to stop.  The communications that I have received up to now are rote and tone deaf.  Again, I am not stupid.  There were likely thousands of social media messages like mine.  And I learned yesterday from a PR Week article that Shel Holtz sent me that:

Of the 104 people in [Southwest’s] communications and outreach team, two-thirds have been engaged in the response and support efforts.

By my math, that’s about 68 people – responding to thousands of messages.  What that creates are almost bot-like answers like the one I got.  Not good enough.  As I have already pointed out, airlines have some of the best crisis communications planning of all industries, so why not add 200 or 300 customer service people from an agency that specializes just in this sort of thing?  A simple Google search reveals dozens.

It starts at the top at Southwest

And as a side note, in the PR Week interview, “6 questions for Southwest Airlines’ CCO Linda Rutherford on outage crisis,” (published on July 22) Ms. Rutherford, presumably prepped by her communications staff, stated:

We’ve had a bit of a ragged start today. We found we had mismatches. In other words, we might have an airplane in one city, but our crew had timed out the day before and they didn’t get proper rest to fly. We have had some issues today we’re continuing to work through.

Since when are 700 canceled flights on July 21 and 800 canceled flights on July 22 considered a“ragged start?” This demeans my awful experience.  It was not “ragged,” it was terrifying and exasperating.

When asked if Southwest was planning to offer any compensation to customers, Ms. Rutherford mentioned extending a fare sale (I think that people are going to be LESS likely to fly Southwest now) and a:

…massive effort underway to reach every customer individually impacted by a cancellation.”

Somehow, those messages never reached me, but MY messages fell on deaf ears.  Finally, Ms. Rutherford stated:

Every situation is different, so we are tailoring the communication.”

TAILORING THE COMMUNICATION?  How about just responding to my urgent appeals when I needed you last week? The DMs that I got could not have been more generic – and I also provided links to the posts that explained my situation.  To not have “tailored the communications” when I provided excruciating detail in inexcusable.

Finally, and perhaps this is nit-picking or editing, but in Ms. Rutherford’s interview, the words “We’re sorry” (rule #1 is crisis communications – apologize early and often) do not appear until the ninth paragraph of the 11 that constituted her Q&A in PR Week.

Please stop shooting yourself in the foot, Southwest. I can keep this up as long as you keep messing up.

Colonoscopies, CEOs, Cultures and Connection: Another Great FIR Podcast

Before I headed off to my Hong Kong adventure, one of my favorite gigs was being a correspondent on what I still think is the best podcast out there:  For Immediate Release, which is now the FIR Podcast Network.

Ike PIgott
Ike Pigott

So as you can imagine, it’s about ten times more fun when I get to be a panelist on an episode.  With Neville Hobson’s departure, Shel Holtz changed up the format a bit, but still kept the incredibly entertaining and informative content.  Today, I had the distinct pleasure

Paul Gillin
Paul Gillin

to be an FIR panelist again on today’s FIR #24.  I was on with Paul Gillin,  author and practitioner who specializes in social media for B2B companies, and my friend Ike Pigott, communication strategist, spokesman for Alabama Power and all-around smart guy.

In today’s podcast, we covered an amazingly wide variety of topics, including:

  • What will be a live colonoscopy broadcast on Periscope from the Mayo Clinic (yes, you read that right);
  • If CEOs should have active Facebook pages for engaging with stakeholders (this could be good – think Richard Edelman, or this could be bad – think Ross Perot);
  • The new Facebook Reactions buttons; and
  • A ton more.

It was an hour and a half of what I hope you will find both entertaining and informative.   Happy listening.


Top Ten Tips for Effective Advocacy in the Age of Slactivism

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I had the pleasure of being the public affairs world on the agency side for about 15 years, have also done so in the private sector for a non U.S. company and have also done two stints inside of the federal government.  So for eight (or often, more) hours per day, I would think of new and interesting ways to move along the policy, regulatory or legislative agendas hundreds of times.  Online or offline.  Facebook or face-to-face.  From the sender point of view or the receiver point of view.  Since the mid 1990s.

In many ways, I suppose that I was lucky when I was doing grassroots and advocacy work, because “back in the day” [insert Grandpa Simpson voice], our goal was to get advocates to actually DO something.   We got addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.  And we used them.  We organized.  We filled up buses. We got stuff done.  Sometimes, we won, and more often, we lost.  But we got people to get skin in the game.

The Golden Goose for advocacy: federal dollars

I am treading carefully here because this post, like all others that I have written since I started blogging ten years ago express my opinions and mine alone (God, I get tired of saying that.  And if you have any questions, pop over to my disclaimer page).

Let’s use the current example that I know best, medical research funding.  It begins in Congress with the appropriations process. Most federal funding comes from the Appropriations Committees.   These are the members of the Appropriations Committees in the House and the Senate. THESE people matter because they are the ones who have a say in how federal money gets spent. So unless your congressional representatives are on these lists, your time and energy are best spent elsewhere.

Before partisan bickering was in vogue on Capitol Hill, things actually got done. There was a schedule to getting appropriations bills done.  If and when you DO build a relationship with a Hill staffer to a Member on an Appropriations Committee, good advocates get an idea of the legislative schedule. Knowing WHEN to act is sometimes more important than knowing what to do.  When will a bill be introduced? When does the real budget planning process begin? If a staffer has his head buried in a military spending bill, you are not going to get her attention for medical research funding – in that moment. Forget your awareness month and the Hill Day that YOU schedule. You have to know when Congress is actually taking action on what matters to you.

And consider the following from someone who has been on both sides of the federal governm.nt fence and worked in online and offline advocacy.

Ten tips for how to be an effective advocate

  1. Hill Days are great if you want a trip to Washington, DC, but unless your representative is on an Appropriations Committee or best pals with one, you are often wasting your time.  You get a grab and grin and you get shown the door.
  2. Your relationship with the Hill staffers (yes, harried 24 year-old) is your best key in the door to know if, when and how to get noticed. This is art and science; you are not a professional lobbyist, so you need to figure out the balance between passion and reality. Oh, and by the way, you are one in about 100 people who will contact that staffer on any given day, wanting something.  Know that.
  3. The survey is a little dated, but that same Hill Staffer thinks that YOU are vastly more influential than the slick-haired lobbyist.
  4. Forming a relationship with that Hill Staffer means one thing: giving her the information that she needs that will be of value to her boss. NOT the information that you think is important.  And if you want the point of view of that Capitol Hill staffer, read this.
  5. In additional to personal relationships with Hill staff, if you want to get the attention of an Appropriations Committee member and are on a shoestring budget, pitch a compelling, personal story to the Member’s local or most influential paper. The now-retiring Barbara Mikulski of Maryland’s home paper is the Baltimore Sun. You can be darned sure that it gets scanned every day for stories that may interest the Senator. It costs nothing to pitch a reporter.
  6. Stop infighting. People usually become medical research advocates because of a personal loss, and this makes people wildly passionate – too passionate. Trust me, I get it. But there is a time for passion and a time for steel-eyed logic. But guess what? There is way too much bickering and agenda setting. What if each and every last one banded together, with a united budget, ask and agenda? And actually worked with the people who decided how the money got spent?  Nirvana.
  7. The people in the federal government agencies are not the enemy. Holding rallies, protests and other events to change the way that they “see” things is a waste of time. FDA, NIH or any other alphabet soup agency and others want funding for different types of diseases or medicines as much as we do. They want enormous budgets too. They want to write big, fat checks to researchers to do amazing things. But they don’t get to choose how much money they get. That comes from Congress.  So try working with them.  They want the same thing.
  8. Collaboration will bring about change. Combine the two items above and imagine the immense power of working together across advocacy groups, Congress and the federal government. Imagine the possibilities of getting everyone on the same page, moving in the same direction, aiming for the same goal.
  9. Stop with the Hashtag campaigns. This could be a whole different post, but understand the power – and limits – of social media. 100,000 uses of a hashtag is not going to get you anywhere. 3,000 shares of your loved one, while tender, is not going to influence what you want: to increase funding for disease-related research.   These do not impact Capitol Hill, Pharma nor other federal institutions. Think of how AIDS funding got done in the 1980s: people showed up, protested, occupied and demanded attention. Asking for Likes and re-tweets makes people lazy and ineffective. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
  10. Beware the Slactivist.   This is closely related to the prior point, but what many advocacy groups have failed to grasp is the fact that you are CREATING SLACKTIVISTS.  Aslacktivist is someone who, with very little effort:
    • Comes across an interest cause or issue while surfing social media;
    • Likes, shares, re-tweets, pins or in some other way (and with one click) passes along the information, fulfilling her desire to feel good and worthy (five seconds); and
    • Immediately disengages from the “cause,” moving on to an animated .gif of a cat with a piece of string.

If you want “awareness,” count on slactivists.  If you want to MOVE THE NEEDLE, go back and read the Top Ten Tips above.

From "Confessions of a Capitol Hill Staffer"
From “Confessions of a Capitol Hill Staffer

The motivation behind writing this was that now that I am really getting to meet some wonderful, smart, passionate and intelligent advocates and people who really care, I want to help.  I want to help advocacy, particularly for medical research funding.  I want to help those in the federal government who toil for a fraction of what they could make in the private sector because they believe so passionately in the work that they do.   And I want to help the legislators understand how kicking the can down the road with omnibus bills and Continuing Resolutions makes it so much harder for everyone else.

So please.  Can’t we all just get along?

The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone and do not reflect those of the National Cancer Institute, Kelly Government Services, nor any other corporate overlord for whom I have toiled.  Don’t believe me?  Read my disclaimer.


The Intersection of Healthcare, Cancer and Twitter: It’s Here, Folks

I am an unabashed fan of The Simpsons and one of my favorite episodes is that in which Homer details all Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 4.14.08 PMof the 188 jobs he held in the first 400 episodes.  Myself, I have worked in the public relations agency world for three agencies, as a college professor, I’ve had my own company, worked for the federal government, for a Chinese behemoth that became the largest IPO in history and as a contractor for a federal agency.  So yeah,  I sometimes wake up feeling professionally like Homer Simpson.

My current job at the National Cancer Institute has brought me more job satisfaction  than I think I’ve ever experienced.  Most days, I get to go home with the feeling that, since I am in communications, I did something to help connect patients, caregivers, researchers, doctors, clinicians and others.  Cancer rightfully scares the hell out of many people, and what I have experienced is that those who suffer from or care for those who have this terrible set of diseases crave is information.  

While many people still get information about cancer from sources like their doctors, or 1-800-4-CANCER, increasingly, people are turning to social media for information, support and resources.  Every day, I’ve tried to to do my best at helping to make people aware, on a large scale, of the cancer-related information available to them during my tenure at the NCI.

What I am proudest of though, is what started as a crazy idea and ended up being what Audun Utengen, of Symplur called “unprecendented.”  I knew for some time that Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” would become a PBS documentary co-produced by Ken Burns and Barak Goodman.  It was a three night,  six hour very accurate portrayal of the book (March 30 – April 1, 2015), but one interwoven with compelling interviews, personal stories, triumph and tears.

My crazy idea

My whole train of thought began with what we could NOT do, and that was to miss the opportunity of a lifetime to capitalize on the fact that millions of Americans would be watching a program about the past and present of cancer research and treatment.  Millions of people were going to be focused on cancer.  As the nation’s engine that drives basic cancer research, we at NCI had to do something that would have an enormous and lasting impact on those impacted by cancer.  But what?

Big screen/small screen
Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Live-tweeting #CancerFilm

Based upon the premise of marrying the “big screen/small screen” phenomenon for events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars (remember the Oreo cookie tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl power outage?), what if we could get people to watch the film, and cancer experts could simultaneously provide running commentary and information about cancer – as the facts or stories appeared on the film?  In essence, what if we could live-tweet one of the most important online events about cancer – EVER?  The hashtag, #CancerFilm had already been registered and was in use, and we were thinking big.

Then what?

I knew that NCI’s lone voice was not going to be enough to have the impact we craved.  Luckily, the National Cancer Institute has a vast network of cancer centers as well as an engaged group of advocates.  So we reached out to them and said, “What if we did this – but on a really big scale?”  Well, we were fortunate enough to live-tweet all three nights of Emperor with a group of 18 partners:  cancer centers, advocates,  clinicians and many, many more.

So what happened?

After a tremendous amount of planning, preparation, coordination, we had our plan in place.  When one of many possible cancer topics were mentioned during all three nights of Emperor, the NCI, our 18 partners and others were ready to provide the information in the moment in which it was mentioned.  For example, when the very popular topic of immunotherapy was mentioned, many experts provided links to additional resources in real-time:Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 4.27.39 PMBut we still had the question:  if we all got together and a threw party, would anyone show up? Would people engage in an online conversation about cancer on Twitter while a compelling documentary was airing (across all U.S. time zones, each night beginning at 9:00 pm ET)?  With baited breath, each night I ran reports that were made possible by the Healthcare Hashtag Project, and based upon the tweets that I saw fly past on my Tweetdeck screen, I knew that we were on to something.  And I hoped that it would be BIG.

The results:

NCI, our partners and thousands and thousands of other Twitter users did, in fact, live-tweet using the #CancerFilm hashtag, providing information about the past and present of cancer treatment, but we couldn’t stop there.  So the day after the last night of the documentary, all of us in the partnership (and some new organizations and individuals) conducted a highly successful Twitter chat about what many believe is the future of cancer treatment: immunotherapy.

What I saw flying past my Tweetdeck screen during all three nights as well as the chat on the day after the last episode was people asked questions, engaging in dialogue, arguing and discussing.  And most importantly, that was made possible by the “big screen/small screen” connection.

There are two sets of results that I count.  The first one is quantitative.  Our social media experiment resulted in:

  • 443 million Twitter mentions in three and a half days;
  • 56,565 tweets;
  • 12,234 participants;
  • All three nights and during the chat, our lead Twitter account, @theNCI, was the #1 influencer according to the Healthcare Hashtag Project;
  • The NCI  and our partners drove the discussion that resulted in one out of every four tweets (more than 120 million mentions); and
  • People found value in the information we provided:  @theNCI saw more than 32,000 engagements (favorites, shares, clicks, video views, etc), indicating that we really were giving people the cancer information that they wanted, when they wanted it.

While the numbers are big, and even if one supposes that, as according to Twitter, only 2-5% of all tweets are actually seen, that is still means that people saw and reacted to between 8.8 and 22.5 MILLION tweets.

What really mattered

While the numbers were beyond our expectations, what really mattered is what we could not measure, the qualitative part:  somewhere, there was someone watching and tweeting who was battling cancer and craved information;  somewhere, someone recognized that clinical trials can be a first option, not a last option; someone read about the tragedy and promise of the past and present of battling this terrible disease; and somewhere, someone realized that if they were nearing the sunset of their own battle with cancer, they learned about palliative care  – and discovered that they had the right to choose how and where their cancer journey ended.


What prompted this blog post was an June 9 article in the highly respected Public Library of Science (PloS) blog by Sally James (‘Second Screen’ for Health Care Messaging: Looking for Lessons from #CancerFilm) in which others called the effort “unprecedented” and “an explosion of people talking about a disease.”  In the PLoS post, Sally wrote:

“Media relations expert Greg Matthews believes the social media explosion of #cancerfilm will inspire others to attempt to re-create it.  “Anyone who saw the impact that #cancerfilm had on the online health ecosystem is going to be building on that model – it was phenomenally successful.”

Those are wonderful words to read and the social media experiment, while a tremendous amount of work, collaboration and cooperation, was the most gratifying professional effort that I have ever undertaken.  And if it inspires others to re-create it, all the better.

So even after some amazing numbers, I still tried to focus on what is most important:  getting cancer-related information to those who need it most.  I hit the “reset” button on my job every day.  Innovation is needed because cancer doesn’t wait, so I don’t either.

Can we truly measure the most important impact, reaching people in a moment of need?  No way.  Did it happen?  I am certain of it.

That’s why I love what I get to do every day.


P.S.:  In case you have not read my disclaimer page on this site, my Twitter account nor any of the other places online where my words are littered, know that the views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of the National Cancer Institute nor Kelly Government Services.





Dear Mass Media and Social Media: Help Stop Terrorism

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There are way too many mornings when I awake to read another front-page article about an innocent person who is killed (now, often beheaded) by implacable, bloodthirsty terrorists.  These stories appear often in the online equivalent of above the fold (or for people who still buy papers, really above the fold).  This morning was no exception when I read about the beheading of Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist.

From my own memories of September 11 to the “Je Suis Charlie” movement to these latest horrific videos, a thought occurred to me that stirred up memories from when I was a kid.   Growing up a baseball fan, the only games I got to watch were those broadcast on network television on Saturdays – the Game of the Week.  In the 1970s, it became in vogue to either streak across the field or run around like an idiot until you got tackled, hauled off and likely released a couple of hours later – so everyone could see you on network TV.  It still happens (see below), but the impact is largely confined to social media (this video has more than three million views):


In the 70s, the TV cameras used to follow these idiots, tracking them while they tried to elude either the police or stadium security and the announcers would often provide commentary.  Then, someone came up with a great idea:  STOP SHOWING THE IDIOTS.  By denying them what they wanted most – “exposure” on television, the craze eventually went away.

I have been around the media for a LONG time and know that in about every news room in America, the mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads” holds true.  The more gruesome the killing, violence, hostage situation, you name it, the more the editors salivate at the increase circulation numbers, eyeballs or TV ratings.  it’s true: newsrooms love this stuff.  If you don’t believe me, ask a reporter.  It gains eyeballs, clicks and readers.

Bloodthirsty animals like ISIS are now exploiting traditional and social media to boast and show off their latest atrocities, and at least the media that I read are more than happy to write prominent articles about it with pictures of some poor soul kneeling before someone in the last, humiliating moments of their lives. And yes, I showed  the image above, but to make a point.

There is an all-too-familiar pattern to what is happening today in the poorly named “war against terror.”  It goes like this:

  1. Sadistic, media-crazed barbarians kidnap an innocent civilian
  2. Said barbarians issue a picture or video, demand ransom and publicize their latest prize
  3. Media carries the story, along with quotes from said barbaric group
  4. Demands are not met or ransom is not paid
  5. Innocent person gets killed, often in bloodthirsty, dramatic fashion, such as a beheading
  6. Sadistic animals release a video and a statement that is carried VERBATIM by media outlets all over the world, becoming a megaphone for said barbarians
  7. Impotent world leaders express outrage.  Today’s statement from the Japanese government was “Japan strongly condemned the killing, saying an “atrocious act of terrorism” had been committed and that the country was “outraged by the horrific act.
  8. Fueled by world attention in mainstream and social media, sadistic, media-crazed barbarians prepare to re-feed the media beast that lives off of “if it bleeds, it leads.”
  9. Repeat.  Again, and again.

Don’t believe me?  How about Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University?  He says:

“Terrorism is basically a media phenomenon,  You can look at it as a species of psychological warfare waged through the media. Which means that while we know terrorists influence the media, media coverage also influences terrorists.

Well, I don’t own guns.  I can’t drop bombs.  But I am pretty smart and have worked in communications since the late 1990s, and here’s my piece of unsolicited advice for the print, television, radio and social media decision makers:


YouTube and Twitter have done their best to deny social media as a venue for these animals, but it’s difficult and this stuff goes viral – fast.  According to a September 2014 article, Forbes reports “With 100 hours of new footage uploaded every minute, YouTube says it doesn’t, and couldn’t, prescreen content, relying on users to flag violations.”  I get it.  These two platforms have the best of intentions, but are overloaded.

But I’m not done.

ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox News and others:  stop reporting on beheadings.  Major newspapers like my hometown Washington Post (on which I learned of the latest atrocity), deny the terrorists a cheap propaganda victory.  Online news outlets like the Huffington Post: think about what you can do to help win the poorly named “war on terror,” ignore the spike that you’ll see in web traffic and stop being their publicists.  

Does this apply to every act of terror?  Certainly not.  Events like what happened at Charlie Hebdo can and must be reported.  BUT – for those editors who make the “write or don’t write,” “report or don’t report” decisions on individual acts of terror accompanied by insane rants, ask yourselves an important question:

By reporting on acts of bloodthirsty violence, are you interested in helping terrorists get out their propaganda, or are you interested in making money?

It might seem complex, but it’s actually pretty damn simple.

Stop showing the idiot on the baseball field.  Go to commercial.  Deny the idiot/animal their platform.

And take away their power.