Dear Travel PR, Don’t Lie

I was asked to participate in a panel for travel PR professionals later this week, along with a traditional newspaper and magazine editor, talking about best practices in pitching stories. How do you get attention and coverage? What do PR professionals do wrong, from our perspective?

And something set me off Monday morning with one pitch, so I thought I’d share it. The worst thing a brand can do is lie. But disingenuous framing can be almost as damaging.

When Travel PR Reps Lied to Me

I believe that American Airlines corporate communications directly lied to me twice in 2015. (I don’t think this person liked me to begin with, so probably doesn’t care, but they are burned with me forever.)

  1. When American was eliminating the ability to hold reservations over the phone, they said that wasn’t happening and that advance notice would be provided if it eventually did.
  2. When American was eliminating through-checked bags on separate tickets (including two American Airlines tickets) they said that wasn’t happening.

In both cases the news was confirmed shortly after, in the first case a matter of days (and with no advance notice given). Even if a brand doesn’t want news out yet, it’s still not a good idea to simply say it isn’t true.

It took a long time before I’d believe anything out of American’s corporate communications again, though I find the current team to be honest or at least willing not to comment rather than to lie.

  • Say no comment
  • Say “today we’re talking about..” and change the subject
  • Ignore an email
  • But don’t blatantly lie.

A couple of years ago word started getting out that Hyatt would be changing how top tier elite suite upgrades worked. You used to be able to book a suite upgrade by its expiration date for future travel. That was ending as a result of a new customer relationship database and an unwillingness to invest in changing the default way it was set up. Hyatt wasn’t ready to talk about it, and the PR person I reached out to told me “I chatted with the HGP team, and at this time, we aren’t planning any changes to the Diamond Suite Upgrade policy.”

In other words I believe they directly lied to me. That was confirmed to me later by a senior Hyatt executive who spent nearly an hour on the phone apologizing to me and explaining that what happened was unacceptable. I believe this person still works for Hyatt corporate communications. And Hyatt’s PR team starts off in a hole with me because of it.

This week’s Disingenous Hyatt Press Release Puts Them in a Hole

Monday morning they sent out a press release touting new free breakfast at Hyatt Place properties for everyone who books direct and is a member of Hyatt’s loyalty program. This is a cut because currently there are no restrictions, everyone staying on property gets breakfast. It’s a book direct and a membership signup play. But several outlets – blogs, specialty media that cover hotels, ran with this as an improvement because that’s what Hyatt said it is.

Here’s what Hyatt reached out to tell me about breakfast,

Reimagined Breakfast: All World of Hyatt members who book directly with Hyatt can enjoy the newly reimagined breakfast for free at Hyatt Place hotels, starting November 1, 2018.

…Non-members can enjoy breakfast for a fee or easily sign up for the World of Hyatt loyalty program upon check in to receive free breakfast during the duration of their stay.

You can fool plenty of people, but the problem for a brand trying to do this is with many people you can fool them only once.

I reached out to the authors I came across who ran the story the way Hyatt presented it. I’m not trying to be a jerk, just giving them a warning. After covering free breakfast at Hyatt Place properties as something new for guests they’re embarrassed. How do you think they’ll treat the next release from Hyatt? When PR professionals burn their credibility, the people they work with will be more skeptical of releases and answers the next time.

Other Tips for PR Professionals

I write 6 things a day myself. I need constant content. I’m also writing in real time. And if it’s in my niche even minutiae gets covered. I want to cover news, so please share it.

  • Make it easy for me. If I respond to you, I’m interested. Have yours facts or be willing to get them quickly. Don’t assume all you need is the press release, and if you can’t get more detail or clarification within hours things aren’t going anywhere.

  • It’s fine to follow up on pitches. You’re probably emailing my junkmail account. Thank goodness most media lists have an old @yahoo account for me. I scan it once or twice a day but I miss things. However your followups should be targeted to people who conceivably might be interested, not your whole database.

  • Offering interviews is great. Be sure your principal is willing to commit the time to do them if you’re offering. And only offer when they’re interested in being candid and having a real conversation, not just repeating talking points. You win when they come across well and if they’re sticking to a script they’re not going to. Provide actual insight.

  • Build relationships don’t just send releases. When you have something valuable to offer send targeted, well-crafted emails specific to your top recipients. Send follow up notes and thanks for coverage. I delete those, some people may even say they don’t want it, but the truth is people who are helpful and nice get noticed more, their name on a pitch is more recognizable in the in box.

  • What does embargo mean? I’ll agree to embargo but (1) it should be actual news and (2) if you post the information on your website – live for the world on the internet — that’s breaking the embargo.

  • Not everything deserves a press release. A new food and beverage manager at a hotel isn’t news. Maybe you have to send it because your client wants it, but be a little embarrassed when you do.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Pingbacks

  1. […] Dear Travel PR, Don’t Lie by View From The Wing. Couldn’t agree with this more. I’ve got a mental list of the media departments that give frequent untruthful answers. It’s actually interesting in that the way the lie is so consistent that I’ve actually been able to use it to confirm a piece of information before (e.g “that’s definitely not happening” = that is happening). […]

Comments

  1. These airline executives must have attended Trump University’s course on lying and how best to manipulate the facts. Just keep lying and hope there are enough stupid people out there to actually believe it. Seems to be working for Trump.

  2. Anyone who says “reached out” is a twat. It’s PR PC appease speak and should be banned. The expression is “contacted me”

  3. Gary…Do you think the PR guy at AA was lying or was he just poorly informed internally? Both are clearly bad, but outright lying would be the more egregious act.

  4. @Mark, the difference is, I would assume business travelers do tend to skew on the more educated side (e.g. can see through the BS more).

  5. Many of us know when lies are told but @gary you’d be wise to share these liars so that the bulk of your audience is informed as well.

  6. @Michael it’s always possible that a PR person is being lied to. they were *adamant* about what’s happen, that they knew the truth and they were certain. They never came back and said “gosh I was misinformed and got that one wrong.” and they did it more than once.

  7. A good PR professional doesn’t lie. If they don’t know the answer, they say so, tell you they’ll get back to you, and then actually do so–without being reminded. They may say, “I’m not allowed to discuss that. Yet.” But then they get back to you as soon as they are allowed to discuss it. They also don’t ignore emails, telephone calls, or emails.

    Sure, their job is to portray their client in the best possible light, but no one will believe them after they’re caught in a lie. And being unresponsive isn’t okay for someone who is a professional.

  8. Don’t lie, if you don’t know the answer to a question ‘Let me check on that and get back to you’ I appreciate the straight reply without frosting. The Word Enhancement, has a whole new meaning in This current PR code speak. Plain speaking is always the best route, Hey we’re all in this crazy world.

  9. @Mark,

    Spot on!

    So, with this “manifesto” calling out companies (especially airlines) for twisting/fudging/ intentionally misrepresenting facts, does this pretty much mean 99% of the press releases issued, and other PR babble be it spoken in a conference or “offered” in an on the record “interview”/sound bite, etc., are basically worthless and our airlines would simply be better off saying something like:

    “Today, the board of directors at ‘Screw You Airlines’ looked at their secret, numbered, offshore bank/brokerage accounts in Panama/Cayman Islands, etc., and determined the $20-$30 mil already hidden away in an offshore tax free haven isn’t enough to buy another multi-million (Ocean front/golf course hugging) vacay home, so we’re pleased to announce that for tickets bought after 12midight tonight:

    1.) penalties and punishments for changing flights will increase from $200 to $250 – wait, why stop there? – make that $300 for domestic itineraries and from $300 to $500 for international itineraries;

    2.) checked bag fees will increase from $25 for the first checked bag to $35, and from $35 to $50 for the second bag for domestic flights and for international flights are increasing from $65 to “up to $200 for the first checked bag and whatever “the eff” we decide at any given moment we want higher than $200 for the second checked bag;

    3.) miles accrued in our (long ago next to useless & worthless) SkyPesos account will become even more useless & worthless than they already are with elite status now only available for those who spend $100k AND FLY 1 million miles per year with us (otherwise like our name says: Screw You!)

    Finally, effective Jan 15th 2019 the Board of ‘Screw You Airlines’ today approved our next phase of our extremely lucrative (for us ONLY, of course) cabin densifications with even more, but of course, even smaller no legroom seats plus even smaller than the kindergarten sized bathrooms we recently began installing packed aboard planes too horrible for us, and our CEOs, to fly?

    Oh, and PS: the Board of ‘Screw You Airlines’ is also pleased to announce it’s next, and even larger than the already past decade of obscenely large stock buybacks so our shareholders will restore the $10million ‘performance bonus’ that was forsaken by our CEO this year so he can “afford” to pay full price to restore the sand dunes in front of his multi-million dollar palatial home instead of (allegedly) stealing it on the cheap from a shady “contractor” who, with a telling “wink & nod” said “don’t worry, I’ll getcha some sand for much less than most of your (law abiding) neighbors are paying to replace those hurricane washed away dunes of yours…” 😉

    …instead of the bs crap they usually say that’s intended to achieve the above that they tout as “passenger pleasing/preferred ‘options’, ‘perks’, etc.,” that were stripped away…er “unbundled” sounds so much nicer (even if it’s intentionally nubulous) than ‘stripped away’ so that we could become even more obscenely and outrageously (and in most cases, underservedly given our recent track records!) rich than we already are.

    Yeah, that’ll be the day – especially in these times when sleaze and dishonesty is all the rage…

    ….And so many people now seem to think cartels and oligopolies are good, while competition is bad.

    Who knew “values” this stupid and bat crap crazy could ever be viewed by anyone, let alone so many, as being virtues to live and breathe by?

    Oh, well, such is life in the (no longer not so) good ‘ol U…S…of A…these days! 😉

  10. @Howard Miller

    Your post is pure gold! I would add:

    4) Customer- friendly new elite benefits: Beginning September 5, ScrewYou Elite members will no longer receive 50% off the purchase of Main Cabin Extra Millimeter seats at the time of booking.
    You will continue to receive complimentary access to Main Cabin Extra Millimeter seats within 24 hours of your flight (on February 29th) if we haven’t sold them. Holders of out new elite credit card will also receive complimentary access to our Commodore Lounge in Uzbekistan.

  11. @Gary topping & @Texan@heart:

    TY!

    Also, luv the branding “makeover” offered by @Texan – perfection! 🙂

  12. Gary,
    I’m a tourist; with the barest inkling of the fraudulent, valueless crap that airlines, hotels, agents, banks, uber clones; jostling with the other hordes of scammers to bleed dry the market sector we comprise. Either, we are curious about our planet; at worst naively delusional suckers. Neither of those conditions seem tojustify our fate.

    I subscribe to your blog because in many ways it is entertaining; but mainly because even I can learn something, not only from the positive/helpful topics you note and any heads-up to atrocities to be avoided. There are also the battle-hardened responses of those for whom travel is an essential element to their livelihood. Your resolve to prevail offers some hope. Thanks

  13. As a semi-retired journalist who dealt with half truths and lies from various sources, I can only say that any PR type who thinks most of the journalists they’re sending misleading releases are stupid, probably need to consider the possibility that they, not the journalists, are the stupid one.
    I’m a Hyatt loyalist, and I recall being a bit confused when I read the news of the changes, because I was under the impression that everyone already received free breakfast.
    Disappointing to learn that Hyatt sees fit to be so deceptive with its news releases.

  14. that’s it, you ingrates, I’m eliminating the lavs in coach and putting in two more rows

  15. Oh, c’mon Duggie, just eliminating the lavs and stuffing “just” two more rows of “up to 30-inch pitch”, hard as cement blocks, butt numbing, non-reclining, no legroom, no seatback IFE teeny-tiny seats with toothpick armrests?!?!?

    …why not double down and instead go for those hideous looking (not to mention nut crunching for guys and [I’ll leave blank for women]) contraptions better known as the 24” pitch ‘Saddle Seats’ unveiled at the AIX show in April all the way back to the rear bulkhead section where the pretend galleys that you really don’t want to spend any money stocking with those little bags of two, maybe…three…microscopic sized pretzles and (single) sip sippie cup sized cans of soda & the pair of door latching, kiddie sized micro loos that are so small, your F/A’s now must stock Costco sized tubs of Crisco in the galleys to smear along the walls and door jambs when anyone over the age of 10 gets wedged inside now are anyway… 😉

    So then next year, you can double…who knows? maybe even TRIPLE the size of the already multi-billion $$$ stock buybacks so gleeful shareholders will reward you with a few more millions of breadcrumbs from their BILLIONS and BILLIONS and BILLIONS of stacks of cash!!!

  16. PR types have always been keen to lie; it’s in their corporate DNA.

    However, they have been emboldened to reach new heights in the Trumpian era when anything, I mean anything, goes. Sad really.

  17. @Jamesay
    Indeed. ‘Reach out’ is the catch-all for every sleazy PR spin-meister, so it’s surprising to see it pop up on this site.

  18. Howard Miller said: “So then next year, you can double…who knows? maybe even TRIPLE the size of the already multi-billion $$$ stock buybacks so gleeful shareholders will reward you with a few more millions of breadcrumbs from their BILLIONS and BILLIONS and BILLIONS of stacks of cash!!!”

    Companies usually do stockbuybacks to signal that they think their stock is undervalued. However, since they have to finance buybacks with free cash on the balance sheet (or typically by borrowing), buyback are a credit negative. I have not checked for announcements; however, if the airline executives are doing buybacks (except for Southwest), it is irresponsible. Why, because United is rated (S&P/Moody’s as of tonight) BB/Ba1 (junk), American Airlines BB-/Ba1 (junk), and Delta BBB-/Baa3 (just barely investment grade/that is, almost junk). Seriously, they should use cash to pay down debt and/or save for a rainy day.

    Southwest is rated BBB+/A3 (solidly investment grade), so a buyback might be “ok”.

  19. Gary, I have subscribed long enough to remember the Hyatt story. Although Jeff Z called you and spoke about what happened for almost an hour, let’s remember he was the face of the entire HGP to WOH disaster. I say disaster because it drove market share to Marriott and Hilton, disaster because they decided to use market it as a lifestyle brand and an enhancement and disaster because the Reddit AMA was just canned corporate speak. The Reddit AMA was so poorly done Jeff Z was done

  20. @Paul s – that wasn’t the reason for jeff’s departure

    the reddit ama wasn’t a good idea — you do not do an ama unless you are willing to be totally candid, you’re going to get fried

    it’s unclear that losses to hyatt have been material to marriott or hilton

    the lifestyle brand stuff didn’t come from jeff. the ceo is sold on that piece it seems. the marketing shift was directed by the cmo who has since been let go

  21. I think your first few points are 100% correct and it is BS when they lie.

    On the other hand I disagree with your view on the Hyatt breakfast situation. The release says Hyatt members booking direct will be able to access the “newly-reimagined breakfast”. While it’s a downgrade of who can access it, it’s an upgrade of the breakfast. You can argue its just semantics but I view it as a positive spin on a partially negative change. Now if you ask them and they say it’s the same breakfast, THEN they have lied. But I don’t think this is the same as the other situations.

  22. @Other Just Saying,

    I agree!

    Yet, IIRC, the entire group that comprises our current airline industry Cartel members (Charter members such as American, Delta & United plus “Affiliate” members Alaska Airlines [most recent inductee] & JetBlue [member since 2015 after Dave Barger was kicked to the curb and the toady that replaced him took over]) have engaged in successive rounds of Board authorized, multi-billion dollar share buybacks in recent years (especially as competition was progressively eliminated)…

    …with stock buybacks among all of the Cartel members (Charter & “affiliates”) still ongoing and authorized to continue uninterrupted at least throughout this year for all of them, and extending into 2019 for some already…

    FWIW, an Opinion columnist in Forbes magazine (hardly a left wing rag – whose Founder, Malcom Forbes, decreed as its motto “The Capitalist’s Tool”), Arne Alsin, on Feb 28, 2017, said the following regarding the propriety of stock buybacks:

    “For most of the 20th century, stock buybacks were deemed illegal because they were thought to be a form of stock market manipulation. But since 1982, when they were essentially legalized by the SEC, buybacks have become perhaps the most popular financial engineering tool in the C-Suite tool shed. And it’s obvious why Wall Street loves them: Buying back company stock can inflate a company’s share price and boost its earnings per share — metrics that often guide lucrative executive bonuses.

    As Reuters wrote recently, ‘Stock buybacks enrich the bosses even when business sags.’”

  23. @Howard Miller: You are almost implying that stock buybacks and special dividends are per se wrong. Not surprising. Some economists have long argued (like every since I started studying economics) that buybacks and special dividends cause companies to pay attention to short term gains in the stock markets rather than reinvesting long term in their companies. The left wing has piggybacked on that argument, stating that why lower taxes, because companies would just waste it on buybacks and special dividends.

    However, I personally like buybacks for the following reasons:
    (1) Since I work in the private sector, I rely on 401K, IRA, and savings to fund my retirement. I am very happy when a company announces a big special dividend or a stock buyback, because that means that my stock goes up.
    (2) If it is a stupid credit decision, like an airline junk company, then I sell the stock right away and invest in a less risky investment. More leverage, more risk (for example, if you buy a $100K house with $10K down more risky than a $100K house with $50K down).
    (3) Sometimes, companies have cash floating around that really could be put to better use elsewhere. For example, at YE17, Apple had $74.181 billion of cash and short term investment on their balance sheet. Since they have $5.126 billion shares, that is $14.41 cash/share. If they do a buyback or special dividend, which makes my stock price go up, great.
    (4) Now is that cash lost to the economy as the left wing is claiming. No of course not. I am planning to invest my dividend in cancer cure and robotics companies. Really I will.
    (5) The additional argument is most people do not have stock portfolios. Maybe. Most Americans do not have any retirement savings (but that is a discussion for another day). However, public sector pensions in say California (the pension fund is named Calpers), invest heavily in stocks to try to cover their funding shortfalls. If stocks prices go up, then shortfalls go down and maybe California public service employees actually get the promised pensions. I have not checked, but I bet Calpers has invested heavily in Apple.
    (6) Back to the original problem, should companies reinvest their money, or give it back though dividends. Maybe when you have a startup the owner should reinvest everything. However, larger companies have professional managers that may or may not have vision. I think Peter Principle (people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence) and Howe’s Law (Every man has a scheme that will not work). Tend to apply. I want them to give me some of the profits back now.
    (7) Referencing item (6) Look at the airline industry, both Peter Principle and Howe’s Law are in full display. If I owned the stock of AA or United, I want the largest dividend as possible, before those clowns flush their companies down the toilet.

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