Wick Communications

Don’t be a baby

In journalism on June 18, 2010 at 9:51 am

A friend of mine had a horrible experience with an airline. (I know. Like that makes him special.) So he wrote a letter of complaint, and, this being the 21st century, posted it on his blog and on Facebook.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, as far as I’m concerned. My friend is a travel writer. Nothing wrong with that, either. But I think there is a problem with mixing his vacation complaint with his vocation. My friend started his letter this way:

To whom it may concern:

I am a travel writer…

He goes on to say he is a frequent flyer and a member of the airlines’ premier club. Those are both relevant facts and should be enough to get the airline to act appropriately. (You can read his letter on the link above. Basically, he’s upset that the airline doesn’t have changing tables for babies on all of its airplanes.) …

I think he’s right on the merits but that he screwed up the execution. I told him in an e-mail that if I were his employer I wouldn’t want him suggesting that he holds some special place among the flying public as a result of writing about the travel industry. Similarly, I think it would be wrong to write a letter of complaint, say, to the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team and note that you are a baseball writer. It has a whiff of extortion to it.

He wrote me back and he disagrees. He says it’s a matter of full disclosure. He wanted the airline to know up front that he planned to make a public deal of his complaint on Facebook and on his blog.

To be honest, that is a curious explanation to me. I mention the issue here because I want you to be very careful about referencing your journalistic work when dealing with private matters of commerce. I think it’s at least possible that your motives could be misunderstood.

Clay

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  1. Clay: I echo your advice and thoughts. Newspapers and the press are perceived to be arrogant and to have special powers because “we buy ink by the barrel.” If the fact that a complaining person works for a newspaper is relevant, then it also is expected that he or she alert his bosses that he wants to include his newspaper connection as part of the complaint. I would expect most newspapers to tell him or her to omit the newspaper connection.
    David

  2. Dave Lewis just beat me to the punch. Here’s what i had to say …
    So what about the saying, “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”? How are you supposed to wield your power if they don’t know about your big barrel of ink? 🙂

  3. Thanks, David. That’s the way I see it, obviously.

    Incidentally, my friend who made the complaint is a freelancer. He is not beholden to any particular publication. But he is not neophyte, either. He has written for some of the best newspapers in the country.

    I think this is an example of the traditional institutional controls falling by the wayside as more and more newspaper work is farmed out. Many bloggers see absolutely nothing wrong with receiving goodies for favorable reviews — particularly if they announce that they are doing so. It’s a strange new world.

  4. Clay,

    It doesn’t seem so new to me. Travel writers have been accepting freebies longer than sports writers have been complaining about the quality of free food at major games and tournaments.
    I do think your friend made an effort at disclosure, and unfortunately it sounded like a threat.
    The letter to the company doesn’t need a threat, but it’d be equally awkward to write a string of complaints to the airline industry without disclosure. Then you’re undercover, doing so-called “investigative” reporting—gag—and you get to reveal all the different responses later. It’s kind of obnoxious, like visiting a butcher counter with a hidden camera.
    I would suggest your friend do more reporting on this problem, and learn to change the baby on his lap, while sitting on a closed toilet seat. You can practice this at home.

    Kind regards,

    Scott

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