Offer Proactive Customer Care For Complaints at High Velocities

On July 4, 2009, the New York Times ran a piece about public relations going through yet another dramatic shift. The upshot of the piece was that modern-day PR is no longer about building relationships solely with members of the media.

On the contrary, those on the cutting edge of the profession now must also become “dear friends” with “influencers” who can spread the word to millions in a single, powerful tweet. Admittedly, the premise is hard to argue against, especially if your company or client is a start-up like those mentioned in the Times profile.

However, lost in the story are the influencers that should matter more than media to PR professionals: customers.

As individuals, members of this group might not command a following of a half a million or more on Twitter. If you mentioned Biz Stone to them in passing at a backyard barbecue, their response would likely be “what?” rather than “who?” But when the conversation turns to brands and their experiences with them—especially the bad ones—their memories are long, their voices loud and the influence they wield with their peers is profound.

PR professionals of all ranks and files must understand that consumers are increasingly savvy in employing all forms of media to get the attention of someone within the recesses of corporate America who can quickly fix their problem. What separates a first-rate practitioner from an average one boils down to those who accept their roles as ambassadors of their brands with everyone—not just a select list of media, analysts and power brokers. A true brand ambassador will give higher priority to the media query regarding a negative customer experience than they will from the A-list reporter wanting to talk to an executive.

Of course, lining up reporters to interview executives will always be a critical part of the PR team’s day-to-day responsibilities. So, how does a PR team with limited head count and resources juggle the customer piece, too? Undoubtedly, it is a challenge, but not an impossible one.

Based on the experiences of Travelocity’s PR team, here are three considerations:

â–¶ Change your mind-set: Most importantly, the team’s attitude concerning customer service issues from the media has to transform from one of pessimism to opportunism.

There was a time when, upon hearing from influential travel columnist and blogger Christopher Elliott, members of the Travelocity team would roll their eyes. The sole focus would be on the likelihood of him writing a story that would have to be explained to a list of executives, rather than the fact that this might be an opportunity to save a relationship with a customer. The opportunistic approach opened up dialogue with Elliott and led to candid conversations that made the PR team stronger.

â–¶ Be hyper-responsive and follow up: This is especially applicable when dealing with customer-related queries. Plus, with the rise of Twitter, this premise has been ratcheted up even a few more notches.

Upset customers who turn to Twitter are usually at their wit’s end and are inclined to vent; rarely do they think their tweet is going to lead to a resolution. Therefore, they need immediate reassurance. Give it to them, and their perception will instantly improve.

â–¶ Adopt a funnel approach: Designate one person to act as a mediator between the media and the customer service team, and make sure that person is tracking queries from the initial point of contact all the way through to the resolution.

For example, the Travelocity team maintains spreadsheets that log customer contacts from media outlets including print, television, blogs and Twitter—plus one dedicated solely to Elliott.

So, what are the fruits of becoming a PR team comprised of customer champions?

• The team will gain credibility throughout the company. After all, most executives are staying awake at night thinking about how to make life easier for customers.

• As external voices of the company, the PR team’s customer-centric attitude will spread and make other teams take on a “customers first” mentality.

• Lemons turn into lemonade.

Travelocity recently had a customer who was so exasperated with the company that she swore it off completely. She tweeted. Travelocity’s team tweeted back. She e-mailed, and the team gave her a call, assuring her that they care. In a matter of hours, her perception was once again positive, and she tweeted her appreciation. Ultimately, that was more satisfying than having Biz Stone on speed dial. PRN


Joel Frey is a senior public relations manager at Travelocity. He can be reached at