In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
All too often, businesses attempt to hide behind language. Few are direct and honest. We recently received an email from our hometown airline, United, that one would have thought from the header was bringing good news. The email began in bold: We have two exciting separate news items to share with you. The first piece of news was a bit of a yawn. LOT airlines, the Polish national carrier, was joining United’s global network of airlines, the Star Alliance (exciting, only if you fly to Warsaw more often than New York). But the second piece of news marked a serious change in policy (albeit hidden behind the banner of exciting). It started innocently enough: “Purchase restaurant-quality meals during your next United flight in United Economy.”
If you saw that phrase, you might think that Charlie Trotter’s or Tavern on the Green was specking out premium grub—or at least loaning their name to it. Salivating at the thought, I continued reading the paragraph: “You’ll have a choice to purchase and enjoy reasonably priced meals from such well known restaurants as Bennigan’s, Hard Rock Café, Au Bon Pain, and T.G.I. Friday’s on select United flights in United economy … on flights between 3-1/2 and 5 hours, you will have a choice of a complimentary snack or you can purchase breakfast entrees for $7, and lunch and dinners for $10. On flights between 2-1/2 and 3-1/2 hours, you can choose a la carte items for purchase.”
Premium grub? Not a chance. United was introducing second-tier restaurant fare on their flights and, here’s the kicker, getting rid of free meals on almost all domestic flights. But our real issue with United is not the change in policy—bankrupt companies sometimes do stupid things—but how they communicated the change. United hid behind language, obfuscating the truth. Instead of stating something like: “United has changed our policy regarding free meals in economy, and will now allow you to purchase meals from multiple upscale fast-food chains on flights; after surveying our customers, we found that you value our top-ranked frequent flyer program more than the food available in economy, and we made the tough decision to keep that program—which we hope you find far more flexible and better than our competitors― while reducing the availability of free meals,” United opted to hide its policy change behind insincere language.
United could learn a lot from the small, upscale, but reasonably priced hotel chain, Omni Hotels. Omni, in their words, does not have a frequent guest or “points” program like all of the other chains. Instead, they have a personalized “guest recognition” program. Omni’s Select Guest program is a welcome change from the pursuit-of-points mentality that plagues virtually all business travelers. Yes, Omni sends out the occasional free upgrade certificate and even free hotel nights to better customers. But the focus of the program is on guest recognition. What’s guest recognition? It’s personalized service, at each and every Omni. It’s making sure that the pillow is the type you requested. It’s making sure that you receive turn-down service and free morning juice and coffee (delivered to the room), regardless of how often you stay. Unlike other business hotels and airlines which focus on cutting every cost possible while making their guest chase elusive points or miles, the Omni has chosen to invest in its customers, and communicate honestly why it does not award points. What a novel concept!