Photo: Fountain pen

A pen is sometimes mightier than a tweet.

Photograph by Cabri Photo

By Christopher Elliott

When the liftgate on his late-model Ford Explorer cracked, Gary Brewer did everything he could to repair it quickly. He phoned the dealer to find out if the apparent defect was under warranty. It wasn’t. Finally, he spent $987 to replace the part. Brewer, who often drives from Tifton, Georgia, to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, for family vacations, was worried the damaged part might make the car unsafe for his family. In a post on Ford Social, an online network run by the auto company, he detailed his efforts to fix the vehicle and his frustrations with the workmanship.

A few hours later, Brewer received a message that Ford would not be posting his missive. “This is not the best place for you to ask questions about your vehicle or dealership experience,” the message read. “They censored me,” notes Brewer.

That’s not how social media was supposed to work. Just five short years ago, people believed sites such as Facebook and Twitter might help change the world, one status update or tweet at a time. For travelers, that meant that the power of the Internet could be leveraged, helping us get better service as we shared our experiences with others online. Web 2.0, as it was called, would be the great equalizer.

Now that almost every travel company is involved in social media (in 2011 EyeforTravel found 100 percent of travel companies surveyed used Facebook and three out of four were on Twitter), the results aren’t what anyone expected. Sure, for a select few with lots of followers and stellar Klout scores (a measure of your influence in the social media world), using social media as a megaphone works. Travel companies pay close attention and offer better service to these übercitizens of the Internet, or risk a public shaming.

The rest of us? Not so much. Ford says it isn’t squelching comments like Brewer’s on its site. Ford Social “is meant to be one of shared stories and ideas from people who enjoy Ford products and want to hear more from Ford Motor Company,” says Scott Monty, global head of social media at the company. I guess Ford doesn’t want anyone to “go further” than that, despite the company’s tag­line. Monty adds that taking online complaints could cause the car manufacturer to run afoul of federal law, specifically the TREAD Act, which regulates how complaints are handled. Result: a social network that contains largely positive posts about the company. My, how convenient for Ford.

But it is hardly the only company using social media as a promotional tool. JetBlue famously tweeted out news of a ticket giveaway in 2010, drawing a throng online and, later, offline in several Manhattan locations. Last year, Wyndham used Facebook to solicit customers’ funniest “tiny hotel” room stories. It was an opportunity to give away rooms and talk about how spacious its resort accommodations were.

Social sites are an attractive medium for companies because you’re in there interacting with your friends, says Lorraine Sileo of PhoCusWright, a travel research company. “Social media allows advertising messages to at least seem more authentic because of the active input of the user,” she says.

Yet most corporations have never been comfortable with this freewheeling way of communication. When I post something on my consumer advocacy blog, which I do almost every morning, I often call out a company I’ve written about. On Facebook and Twitter, you can do that by adding the @ symbol in front of the company name. The post usually shows up on the company’s page, although a company can remove the link from its site. In many cases, the critical post will vanish after I publish the story. No one likes to be criticized. I’m reminded of Jennifer Shin of Los Angeles, who tried to help her father after he suffered a knee injury before a US Airways flight. She wanted the airline to cover his medical expenses and refund his ticket. She put a comment on the airline’s Facebook page. It promptly deleted her post. So she started a new Facebook page in which she encouraged users to boycott US Airways. So, maybe corporations can’t control everything you say online—yet.

So if social media isn’t a magic bullet, what works? In addition to having a legitimate grievance, travelers should know that there are no shortcuts to getting better service. As a rule, polite and considerate passengers are treated better than angry, arrogant ones. But what if you booked an ocean-view room and got only a pool view? Or your business-class seat morphed into an economy-class reservation? If you’re still on your trip, talk to a supervisor; often, managers are empowered to make a fix. Nothing is better than a real conversation, in real time and real life. If you’re back home, put your grievance in writing, with a brief e-mail or letter (yep, those still work), and rely on the system—not a social network—for a resolution. Go another round, and if that fails, contact me. I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and unlike the companies that believe they’ve tamed the socialsphere, I answer every message. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I still hope Web 2.0 can be a two-way street.

Editor at large Christopher Elliott addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail your story to celliott@ngs.org.

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