I blogged recently at emergencymgmt.com about the new Pew Research Center study of media coverage of the gulf spill. This should be mandatory reading for all crisis communicators.(the study, not my blog post) No time left today so I won’t repeat my remarks from Crisis Comm–but would love to hear some reaction and your take on lessons learned from this report and the media coverage for the spill.
I’m guessing most in America have finally diverted their attention away from the spill. For those who are still watching you might have noticed the back and forth in the media about the “Manhattan-size” underwater plume. NOAA and the Unified Command science team provided an oil spill “budget” that a couple of weeks ago showed all but 26% of the oil gone, and the 26% being rapidly degraded. Then, last week, news came from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute that they discovered a “Manhattan-size” oil plume suspended underwater that contradicted NOAA’s and the science teams oil budget. There was a bit of a stir about this and the media certainly jumped on the story to show, what many wanted to believe, and that is the government is wrong, can’t be trusted and that there is much greater danger still existing from the oil than Unified Command and NOAA would have us believe. It was the academic scientists against the government scientists.
One of those academic scientists, Christopher Reddy, the director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole, wrote an op-ed piece published on CNN.com that brings to light this “conflict.” His essential point seems to be that when scientists engage in back and forth in interpreting data and they share that with scientifically ignorant reporters, the media ends up making a “big story” out of something that may not be so big. Here’s how he describes his situation:
I must have spoken with at least 25 journalists last week, and despite my every effort to explain our findings, the media were more interested in using the new information to portray a duel between competing scientists. The story turned into an us-versus-them scenario in which some scientists are right and others are wrong. Seeking to elucidate, I felt caught in a crossfire.
When I do media training and consulting with clients about dealing with the media, I try to make a few points that admittedly make me sound very cynical and anti-media. I tell my clients that most often when a reporter approaches you the story they are telling is already fixed in their heads. They simply want from you the quotes that can add spice to the story. If you information conflicts with the narrative they have already created, you will either not be quoted or what you say will be twisted to fit the story they have already written at least in their minds. Secondly, reporting today is mostly entertainment and takes the form of melodrama. It is simplified conflict with usually good guys and bad guys and something, the public good, they are fighting over. It is fairly easy to understand how they will approach the story involving you when you think about who might be the good guy, who the bad guy, and what you are fighting over.
In this case, at least according to Mr. Reddy, the scientists provided information that would help fill in the bigger picture of where is the oil in the gulf. But instead of educating the public on the additional data, the media turned it into a story of conflict, competing interests where in this case the government who has taken the responsibility for the oil from BP is hiding or denying the facts to make themselves look good, while the scientists at the academic institutions are the brave, honest, trustworthy fighters for the truth. While Mr. Reddy and his team had the white hats on in this story, they didn’t appreciate how the information they provided got spun into entertainment.
Meanwhile, abcnews provides a report showing that microbes at the oil, diminishing the plume. Much to ABC’s credit, their lead paragraphs point out that the conflicts in report may not really be conflicting:
These latest findings may initially seem to be at odds with a study published last Thursday in Science by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which confirmed the existence of the oil plume and said micro-organisms did not seem to be biodegrading it very quickly.
However, Hazen and Rich Camilli of Woods Hole both said on Tuesday that the studies complement each other.
In all honesty, I suspect that what happened behind the scenes is that the science team and NOAA got with the Woods Hole folks and said, for pete’s sake guys, if you’re going to go off spouting your mouth off about big plumes that contradicts what we are saying, give us a heads up and let us get our act together before running to the media. Properly chastened, Mr. Reddy may have offered up the op-ed and worked to show collaboration that showed up in the abc report. But that is pure speculation on my part.
The point is to understand how the media works. Did they love the conflict between Woods Hole and NOAA? Absolutely. Could they get more eyes on their screens or papers this way? Absolutely. Does it fit the “melodrama” theory of today’s infotainment? Yes, it does. Does it mean the media is being irresponsible? Hmmm, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just important for those dealing with the media to understand how they operate and be a little smarter in how they work with them. And it would be helpful if the American people were a little more sophisticated in their understanding of how the media creates conflicts and stories like this. On the other hand, given the exceptionally low trust in the media, maybe I’m not giving the American public enough credit.
I’ve seen a lot of debate in the last while about HP’s decision to fire their impressively performing CEO Mark Hurd. The two lines of argument are thus:
Anti-firing: the guy’s a superstar, he delivered the goods, you’re going to toss a guy that can do that much for your company and shareholders under the bus for some minor expense reporting errors?
Pro-firing: Well there’s this thing about sexual harrassment and then the supposed victim went ahead and got an attention-grabbing attorney so you know whether he is innocent or not you are going to face a mud fight. So spare yourself the agony. And your famous PR agency says you should.
If that was the way the argument really went I’d have a hard time making a decision. After all, one of the prime rules of PR, like the Hippocratic Oath, should be to do no harm. Firing a superstar CEO just because some lawyer who loves to see her name in the paper makes sounds like she’s coming after you would cause a reverse PR problem of acting like chicken little. But, clearly that is not the problem here.
PRSA Chair Gary McCormick in this post provides a reasoned explanation for what really happened. While investigating the sexual harassment charges which turned out to be false, the board discovered other problems–inappropriate contractor payments and personal expenses recorded as company expenses. Certainly they could have not disclosed those items. The focus was on the sexual harassment and they could do away with that.
I don’t know if APCO, their PR firm, advised them to release Hurd based on fears of the celebrity attorney or based on the reality that the guy was being dishonest and a cheat. Larry Ellison’s defense of him is based on the idea that whatever tiny little cheating he may have done, it is absolutely nothing compared to the huge value he was delivering. Ah, there is the problem isn’t it. Turn our backs on little violations of company ethical standards if you perform well enough. If the guy isn’t doing his job, and he cheats a little drum him out. But if he is making us big bucks, then we’re stupid to lose him for a minor little infraction.
It’s the Ellison kind of thinking that contributed to the collapse in judgment we saw in the financial crisis. It’s the Ellison kind of thinking that destroys public trust in business. It’s the Ellison kind of thinking that contributes to an atmosphere of moral and ethical ambiguity–and to bad decisions that lead to much worse problems. If the HP board which has a significant legacy of integrity to live up from its founders, and whose actions in the past relating to previous CEOs and board members leaves much to be desired, had chosen to take an ambiguous position on Mr. Hurd’s discretion much would have been lost. If you can’t trust your highest leaders, what does that do for the boardroom? What does it convey to the organization? To shareholders? To the public?
Coming out of this event there seems to be the Ellison Way and the HP Way. I’m glad they chose the HP Way.
First it was the Washington Post who declared that the high-priced crisis PR folks were out of their league when it came to crises like BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. I gave my opinion about that bit of silly reporting earlier. But the article this weekend in New York Times really takes the cake.The overall message seems to be that the reputation problems that BP, Toyota and Goldman all now presumably share were if not fully preventable by more competent PR, they certainly wouldn’t be in as bad a shape as they are. (Again, full disclosure, I count both BP and the US Coast Guard among my valued clients.)
As “evidence” of BP’s bad reputation the NYT’s reporter Peter S. Goodman provides an egregious but typical example of the kind of reporting done by Rolling Stone referring here to Goldman: “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Let’s see, what kind of invectives might this kind of reporter use against BP: “A giant radioactive death cloud dripping oil and toxins on innocent families below, skillfully and malevolently directed by a foreign cabal intent on sucking the very life blood out of the American way of life.”
Let me ask you, how would your reputation hold up to that kind of treatment? What if every newspaper and TV station in the land were clambering over each other, competing to see how bad they could make it to attract the biggest possible audiences to get the ratings that would let them charge their exorbitant advertising rates? And how would your reputation withstand the withering attacks of politicians like the representative from Massachusetts who see an opportunity to lead the parade of public outrage by heaping on scorn and new legislation? And what if the holder of the highest office of the land, intent on protecting his electoral future, makes certain that the news media blame game is focused on the “Responsible Party” rather than the government?
My point is this: It is the news media today, operating in a hyper competitive environment, that is one of the most important factors in the damage to reputations we see. For them to observe as both DeBord in the Washington Post and Goodman in the New York Times have done that the “spin” of public relations professionals has failed these organizations is hypocritical and ludicrous. It is a little like a guy standing next to a train track in the aftermath of a horrific head-on collision saying, someone could have prevented this, when he has just pulled the lever that put the trains on collision course.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming the news media for the mess of BP, Toyota or Goldman. In fact it is my firm belief as I have previously stated, that some events are beyond PR. As my colleague Tim O’Leary says, there is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig. When you spill a few thousand or hundred million gallons of oil in the Gulf or practically anywhere, and you can’t stop it for months while the public looks over your shoulder, that is a mighty ugly pig. The best PR in the world is not going to fix it.
And don’t get me wrong about there being no mistakes. Of course BP made mistakes. Nothing like the mistake that led to the explosion and spill and then the “mistake” of not preparing better to contain an event that exceeded their worst case scenario planning. But the focus on the statements like “I want my life back” is just ludicrous, as if Tony Hayward singularly caused the reputation crash of BP by casually making himself the victim. Give the guy a break. If you had cameras stuck on you 24/7 in the worst days of your life, would you say something stupid too Mr. Goodman? BP’s public relations team and advisors made a mistake in allowing Mr. Hayward to be accessible 24/7 which enabled him to say things that minimized the spill or conveyed that he too wanted the spill done with. But, here’s the dilemma–if they hadn’t they (the media) would complain about the absent CEO, if they allowed it, which they did or he insisted, they run the risk of making a comment that the media will use to hang him and the company with.
I find the comments of Mr. Rubenstein referring to BP particularly troublesome: “It was one of the worst P.R. approaches that I’ve seen in my 56 years of business,” says Mr. Rubenstein. “They tried to be opaque. They had every excuse in the book. Right away they should have accepted responsibility and recognized what a disaster they faced. They basically thought they could spin their way out of catastrophe. It doesn’t work that way.” Mr. Rubenstein’s problem is that he’s been reading the New York Times to get his news. He should have been looking at what BP and the coordinated response was doing and saying rather than letting the media “spin” the story for him. From the very beginning BP accepted responsibility, said it was their spill, said they would compensate all legitimate claims, said they would do all they could to stop it, said they would communicate. They did.
As evidence of opaque communication two examples are continually provided: the inaccurate initial spill volume estimate and the fact that in front of Congress BP indicated they were not the only ones to blame. Giving the initial estimate was a mistake–it was a mistake not just made by BP but by Unified Command. Remember, that number was provided by the Federal On-Scene Coordinator speaking for the government and all agencies. The number no doubt came from BP. It was the best estimate they had at the time and it was wrong. What Doug Suttles said later as reported in the Times-Picayune was that what he said when he provided that number was that the number didn’t matter because they were treating the spill as if the volume was unlimited. In other words, there was no scaling of response to the estimated volume. It was all hands on deck to get it stopped with nothing held back and every bit of oil clean up equipment possible was called on. What he should have said when pressed for a number–and here is the lesson for crisis communications in the future–is similar to what Mayor Giuliani said when pressed for an estimate of those killed on 9/11 when the buildings were still falling. Suttles should have said, “We don’t know, we can’t know for certain, but whatever it is is, it is more than we can bear.”
Now, if he said that, what would the media (and Mr. Rubenstein) have said? “You’re being opaque, you’re hiding information, your trying to minimize.” The fact is the response leaders including all gov agencies required an estimate, BP provided their best based on the info they had, Unified Command communicated that to the world, and in the media spin that followed it simply proved how inept and evil BP really was and is.
The other complaint is that BP tried to duck blame. Evidence for this is their testimony to Congress. I challenge you to show me one public statement that BP ever made disowning their responsibility for this event. The truth is that in an event like this there are undoubtedly many complex causes–it is not one single failure. They will be able to point to a whole number of things that if someone had chosen to do something different, the outcome would have changed. If the valve controlling the ram that would pincer off the riser had been manufactured better, or designed better. If a third or fourth or fifth backup emergency shutoff system had been put in place. If alarms had been handled differently, if, if, if. There are more companies involved than BP and more people involved than work for BP. That is the truth. It will take the next 10 years to determine all the liability and where it falls. It would be stupid for BP to hand over to the lawyers of those who also may be liable all the fodder they need to make an open and shut case. So while BP has clearly accepted responsibility and is focusing on cleaning it up, they also have to keep in mind that the courts will make a final determination on cause. An intelligent, responsible media would point this dilemma and problem out. But such nuanced reporting doesn’t create compelling headlines needed to get eyes on the page and advertising rates up.
Once again, I am in agreement with Eric Dezenhall, even though I think the reporter seemed to miss his point. Dezenall said in the NYT article: “The two things that are very hard to survive are hypocrisy and ridicule,” Mr. Dezenhall says. “It’s the height of arrogance to assume that in the middle of a crisis the public yearns for chestnuts of wisdom from people they want to kill. The goal is not to get people not to hate them. It’s to get people to hate them less.”
The public–in a very broad generalization–hates BP. But they hate Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Citgo and all the rest. These companies and the people who run them are the poster children for planet despoilers. They are fouling our atmosphere, causing global warming, forcing us to buy SUVs to take them to the next protest rally. The public’s hypocrisy in their animosity to these companies is of course too obvious to comment on. I have complained for years at the terrible job the oil industry has done in addressing this public sentiment. But when you do something like spill an almost endless amount of oil into a body of water terribly important to fish and people, it is not going to make people like you or the industry any better. When you add the kind of coverage we have seen on this spill–coverage based on competition for eyes–it heaps on the outrage.
So what does this mean for crisis communication of the future?
I’ll repeat my old mantra: Trust is based on two things–do the right things and communicate about them well.
BP did the wrong thing by whatever they did to contribute to this event happening. That is done. What they can do now that they have finally stopped the leak, is continue to do all they can to clean it up and make it right with the people they have harmed. They are doing that and I’m confident they will continue to do that. And they need to communicate well. They need to make certain the world and the American people know what they are doing. In communicating that, they have some very significant obstacles–the media and the politicians who use the media for their own agendas. In my mind (and since I do some work for them I have so advised them) they need to be much, much more agresssive in challenging the kind of coverage that we have seen. They need to correct the facts and mis-information, and challenge the spin that media reports put on the bare facts of this response.
Will it end their reputation problems? Heck no. At best what they can look for is earning the respect of the millions of people in the Gulf that they are working with closely day to day. From that almost one-on-one trust and relationship building, the world will begin to see that there are good people here, doing their best to make things right.
Communicating well in this era of hyper-competitive major news outlets is increasingly going direct with your message. When BP began to advertise nationally that the public could get information directly from the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website, it was a smart thing to do. It doubled the website traffic overnight. It was smart because people going direct for information had a different view than those who only got their info from the media. However, the value of this was minimized for BP when the Unified Command communication’s became a platform for White House talking points and the primary talking point was that BP was only doing what they were doing because of a boot on their neck.
Crisis communication of the future is going to be increasingly technology-driven and increasingly direct. The event website, social media channels, live video feeds, 24/7 “broadcasting” from the response will be the primary means by which the public gets its information. Sure, bloggers will spin the information according to their agendas and all news outlets will be recognized as the same as bloggers. The communicators for the response will not allow rumors, misinformation, Rolling Stone-type hyperbole to go unchallenged. The communication channels provided by the responders will be a place of lively public debate about the truth. And those providing the information will be committed above all to credibility, to being believed, to provided the unvarnished truth regardless of its damage to them. The news outlets, desperately fighting for audiences, will have a hard time creating salacious headlines in that kind of truth-filled environment.
The latest Gallup results continue the trend in declining confidence in our primary sources of news–newspapers and TV. Actually, I say primary and that is not so much the case any more as the switch to Internet as the primary source continues apace. Now, you would think wouldn’t you that with the growing presence of the Internet as a source of information, that trust in newspapers and TV would grow. After all, they have the professional journalists where few non-print or TV news sites do, they have their journalistic credibility and reputations at stake, and as everyone knows “you can’t believe what you read on the Internet.”
So, why is it that our trust in the media continues to decline?
Let me pose two reasons. One is the dying myth of objectivity. The second is rooted in the competitive nature of media.
Those of us in the Walter Cronkite era, who believed (however falsely) in the myth of media objectivity feel betrayed. The extremes on all positions so evident in the cacophony of our media environment make it clear that no one is objective, all have view points. We tend to favor those who support our own viewpoint and believe them to the most “fair and balanced” but since all media are lumped into one pile in an assessment of trust, we look at all the others as untrustworthy. So we now clearly understand they have an agenda–their opponents make that clear. But for the most part they pretend they don’t and with a few exceptions, declare they don’t. If someone tells you they have important information but you know they have an agenda that supersedes them telling you the truth, will you trust them? It’s why I think in many ways we trust Internet content more. One value that has been clearly established is to reveal upfront our economic ties, conflicts, and agendas. If we don’t, holy cow, watch out. And that is a good thing. The mainstream media, again with some exceptions, clings to the myth of objectivity and trust is lost.
The other, is the competitive environment. I suggest that the competitive environment is their primary agenda. Sell ads or die. Simple as that. What do they need to do to sell ads. Beat the million other guys out there trying to do the same thing. Every day. How? By getting attention. How? By playing on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Wouldn’t it be great to have a warning message on all newspapers that says, “Warning–our primary purpose is to get you to read this so our advertisers will be happy. And we will do just about anything we can do get you to read it.”
Speaking of media warning labels, it’s not an original idea. Here’s a few other warning labels the media might consider.
So, how does the competitive pressure play out in actual news reports. I could take a hundred stories and lay them out, but why should I when the Onion did a perfect job of parodying today’s typical coverage.
Let’s look at a few features:
- word choice–greatest environment disaster, dangerous crude oil, black toxic petroleum, unforetold damage.
-bring in the expert — they got to have someone to quote. Credentials don’t matter as much as if the words they use (easily manipulated by a good reporter) fits the flow, gist and angle of the story. I couldn’t believe all the stories in the spill featuring “experts” who were miffed because they weren’t being taken seriously by BP.
- urgency — “time is of the essence” says the expert
– government calls for an investigation — of course, what else would they do? Need to start drafting legislation right now
–appalled elected official — what elected rep isn’t looking for an opportunity to appear in some news story where they can be the white knight riding to the public’s rescue. “Shocked and horrified.” Hmm, sounds like Rep. Markey.
– citizen reaction — now don’t expect here some citizen to say “well I think the news reports are overblown.” No doubt they got that reaction, but that won’t get into the story.
- bad corporations — of course, there has to be a villain and so there is.
Well, of course the Onion story is a spoof, but if you compare their spoof with the stories about almost any major event like the spill, you will see definite patterns emerge. And the Onion pretty well nailed it.
Why don’t we trust the media? Because we want something they can’t seem to give us–and still survive. Wish I had an answer.
Here at least is a scientist with some integrity and honesty. Dr. Crozier, an expert on Gulf of Mexico ecology, admits that he played a role in creating a doomsday scenario around the Gulf spill, a scenario that is proving to be wrong. Before I go further and get attacked for “defending BP” full disclosure–I’ve worked with BP for years and have supported them in this spill, so I will say as I have said before that the spill should never have happened, that the damage created is horrendous, and it is tragic to see the impact on people’s lives and the environment. However, now it is becoming quite clear that much of the reporting and public reaction was overblown.
That is not at all surprising and is totally to be expected. It is how I try to advise clients if they find themselves with the black hat on in a major disaster such as this. Why? Because the media is in a hyper-competitive environment and they fight every day against every other media outlet (including social media and blogs) to get attention–it is the only way they are going to survive. They do it by playing on the three things certain to get attention: FUD–fear, uncertainty and doubt. You don’t win the media war by saying, hey everyone, things are looking pretty rosy. Now, they don’t “create” the news. But they do find “experts” who will say what needs to be said in order to generate a headline or a TV teaser certain to get attention. And the likes of Dr. Crozier and many others provided that opportunity.
It’s just the way things are. But two things really bother me about this. One, is the public never seems to understand this and take this game into consideration in their perceptions of an event. Which is why I am so adamant about going direct with your information at every opportunity. I read reecently (and I’m going to look at the research closer) that the public is pretty happy with the coverage on the spill. They shouldn’t be–but how would they know how much misinformation is conveyed if no one will counter it? Second thing is the media never admits culpability. Unlike Dr. Crozier who is willing to admit that he played a part in creating hysteria, he was a tool, a pawn so to speak, in the hands of the media who had everything to gain from this hysteria. I just wish someone, maybe even NYT, would come around to saying, you know, some of our reporting was a little overheated. Ain’t gonna happen.
At first when I read this study out of Northwestern University, I wanted to say, “duh!” But then I realized that with all the PR and marketing newsletters I read, there is very little discussion about the role of relationships in PR and marketing. Even all this stuff about social media and its role in both PR and marketing tends to forget that at best what social media is is a way to further extend and deepen relationship building. At worst (and this is how it works mostly in my mind) it is a time drag that disperses scare energy and resources into a greatly increased number of shallow relationships, leaving less time to develop the deeper, more significant relationships that matter. I’m speaking on both the personal and business level.
Thirteen years ago I wrote a book called “Friendship Marketing” that focused on the role of strategic relationships in building business. The concept was pretty simple. I had discovered that most businesses I worked with as a consultant could identify a remarkably small group of individual people who were incredibly important to their business. So in thinking about making a business grow, it made sense to focus on those people who, if you had the in-depth relationship with them that was of mutual value, could propel your business to new levels. The problem with this approach is that it is easy to slip into manipulation (the Amway problem). I call you up for coffee and you discover my hidden agenda is not to spend time with you as a valued friend but to sell you something or to get you to help me with my goals. The answer to that, and I saw this repeatedly in successful people and businesses was the transposition of value. In other words, if I place value on someone else because of what they can do for me and my business, I cannot help but be manipulative. On the other hand, if I see my work, life and business as the opportunity to get to know some amazing people, a few of whom might just be great friends regardless of any value they offer to the business, then the whole picture changes.
Think of it this way: when you sit on your rocker contemplating the joys and successes of your life, will you think about the great contracts you signed, the yachts you owned when you had the energy to get on them, the fancy cars you drove and expensive meals you indulged in? Or you will think fondly of the great time with people who meant so much to you as you journeyed through this land called time? Profits, as the great Peter Drucker said, are the right to do business in the future. And doing business continues your opportunity to grow relationships that are the true measure of a great and successful life.
Having just returned from another weeklong business trip, I can sympathize with anyone who has to fly a lot. I have to work hard to hold back my anger at the stupidity of much of the so-called security measures which seem much more clearly aimed at hiring as many new people as possible without doing much to increase security.
However, it isn’t all roses for the poor folks who have to work on these, as the story about a flight attendant shows. Apparently, arguing with one more passenger about the necessity of remaining in the seat until the plane had come to a complete and final stop was too much for him. He opened a beer, threw out the emergency shoot and slid away–it looks like right into jail.
However, for an entertaining story about just how frustrating flying can be, it is hard to beat this one I got this week. It’s from my uncle who was visiting from Michigan. You might notice that the love of story telling runs deep in my family:
“It started auspiciously on Wednesday morning when Delta called around 7:30 to tell us that our flight was confirmed and would leave as given at 12:20.
It’s always nice to be confirmed, right? But our son was not able to access boarding passes online for us out of Seattle, and that was an omen.
Still, we trusted our itinerary info from Delta, and confidently strode up to the Alaska kiosk when son Henry dropped us off at Seatac. Delta told us on the itinerary that they would use Alaska Airlines to fly us to Minneapolis. Henry told us how good that was, for Alaska doesn’t use the terrible 757-300, comfortable for sardines only.
However, the kiosk “told” us to go find an agent. We did. That agent went in search of another agent. That other agent promptly closed her counter to other clients after taking one look at our schedule and her screen. We stood there in bemused expectation, wondering what sort of misadventure was awaiting us this time. We stood there a long time, as she made phone calls, punched keyboards, and kept staring at her enigmatic screen.
Finally, she confided the sinister details: since we had landed on our flight west – by virtue of unacknowledged equipment failure – in Spokane rather than our scheduled destination of Seattle, so Delta had mistakenly re-scheduled our return flight out of Spokane as well. Hence, Alaska had no seats for us.
She invited us to go for a walk with her. She led. We followed. She walked all the way to Delta, elbowed her way through the waiting crowd, got the ears of an agent, and then another agent. Eagerly she looked him in the eyes as she asked, “May I leave this in your competent hands?” Then she left, looking much relieved.
I looked at the agent’s hands, felt some doubt, but made the intentional choice of courting optimism.
It took quite some time. Yes, what a good thing Henry had dropped us 2 ½ hours before scheduled departure.
At last the man smiled at us and said, “This will work in your favor.”
That sounded good to our ears, though it was especially our wearying feet that needed favor. But what was the favor?
I was hoping FIRST CLASS, of course.
“It’s a Delta flight that leaves at 1:10 and will still get you there in time to catch your flight to Grand Rapids. But we have no seats left in coach, so I’m putting you in FIRST CLASS.”
And I said, “Ah, some compensation at last for the troubled flight coming here.” But inside I hurrahed a lot louder. And we looked at each other with an expected smile of much pleasure to come: priority boarding, wide comfortable seats, drinks, dinner on plates, maybe filet mignon, luxury for almost 3 hours!
Who said that life isn’t fair, eh? It was smiling on us right then and there.
The man with the competent hands handed us the first class tickets. Without even looking at them, I stuck them securely in my pocket where no one could snatch them away.
We joined the long security check line, not minding much at all, and even hoping the TSA personnel would steal a glance at our ticket long enough to notice that we were FIRST CLASS –bound. That should be enough for them to think twice about making us open a bag for individual inspection.
On our way to the gate area, we passed a number of enticing eating places. We smiled somewhat condescendingly in their direction, relishing the fact that we were bound for more sumptuous dining, free!
After reaching the gate area, Ruth had to make one of her not infrequent visits to a resting place nearby. When she returned, I said, “Follow me.” As has been her well-practiced custom, she obliged readily. I led her to a nearby Delta Sky Club Center, where only the very elite hang out. In my hands I held two small tickets, a Day Pass given some time ago after another misadventurous Delta flight. I had remembered to stick them in my billfold for this trip, though I had no illusion that we would actually have time or occasion to take advantage. But here we were, a fitting prelude to our forthcoming first classiness.
We settled in comfortably, helped ourselves to a buffet of minor goodies, making sure our appetites would not be unduly compromised. I fiddled eagerly, but vainly, to connect my gadgets to the free Wi-Fi; only Henry may have the answer why my i-pad and netbook are allergic to unfamiliar hookups. After much time-wasting, I comforted myself with the thought I would have another chance in FIRST CLASS, where everything would be perfect.
When the time drew nigher for eventual boarding, I glanced at our seating numbers. I was assigned to A 6 and Ruth to A 3! Well, surely the nice person at the Sky Club desk could speedily straighten that out. I marched my documents to her. She took one look and blanched. I had seen that same look on the Alaskan’s face. She started punching, screening, calling, conferring with her colleague at the desk. It took a long time. She called a supervisor to come and help, but no one came. At last she handed our precious but confused seating assignments to her colleague, and told him she was out of there, unable and by now very unwilling to spend any more time on this vexing phenomenon. The colleague’s explanation came in bits and pieces: we should not have been assigned to first class b/c we had coach tickets. BUT THE MAN WITH THE HANDS SAID THERE WAS NO PLACE FOR US IN COACH, THEREFORE THE ONLY OPTION WAS FIRST CLASS! No, we could not be seated in first class, we would have seats in coach. BUT COACH WAS FULL! Your seats are 25A and 25B.
There was no time left to contest; no time left to buy some eats to hold us till home arrival time; only time to join the long line of coach-bound victims.
Thus instead of a one-time treatment befitting a baron and his spouse, we became sardines on yet another B757-300, munching not on mouth-watering appetizers and fortifying steak and lobster in capacious surroundings, but in straight-jacket positions on pretzels and cookies from the teeny-weeny Delta packages denoting the airline’s munificence.
Fortunately, we both had, in our circumstances, much-needed literature to read: I “The Christian Atheist” and Ruth “Love Mercy.”
When we finished, we switched.
I think it’s easier to reach a slight degree of sanctification when grandiose dreams of the high life have collapsed into a coach seat on a 757.
We hungered and thirsted for a china-served dinner and cloth napkins and a glass of Merlot.
Instead we “suffered” a bit, more ready to identify with the suffering subjects of those books.
And we made it all the way home, on time!
Hungry, weary, but safe.
I do have something I’d like to say to that Delta agent with the competent hands, though.