Theo Coggin

A blog on communications

Tutorial for virgin grammarians

airport

The corporate business world is a rich source of communication gobbledegook – or just poor English. So too are governments the world over.  But let me confine my remarks here to business – and to one outstanding global brand in particular: Virgin Atlantic.

Now that’s a brand I have always highly respected. I never fly any other airline if I can help it. But a recent experience left me and my wife disappointed so we sent off a note to the local folk at Virgin noting our disappointment that we had not been given our seats as indicated when we booked. And also noting that we were otherwise very happy.

About three weeks after sending the email, we sent a reminder, wondering what had happened to our email. Had it become lost in cyberspace?  Clearly not, for eight days afterwards (and almost four weeks to the day after the initial communication) we received this reply:

“Mr and Mrs Coggin

Thank you for contacting Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.

We apologise for the inconvenience , the travel agent should have advised that ,the pre-booking of seats is not guaranteed, because sometimes we might have an aircraft change.

Which might necessitate the change of seating ,therefore even if you are pre-seated ,you still have to confirm 24 hours before your departure date when you check-in online.”

If you wonder about the lengthy verbatim quotation, it is to illustrate the sloppiness of the reply.

Communication is about image, and communication is language. Good language. Respectful language. And in this case, placatory language. In none of these does the Virgin Atlantic writer meet even the basic measure.

It would probably be best to say nothing about the punctuation, such is its aggressive mis-use. The use of the comma is appalling.  Respect for the full stop…well, was it ever there in his mind? The knowledge of sentence construction seems not to exist.

The salutation – how difficult is it to preface “Mr and Mrs Coggin” with a “Dear” or even, in our modern age of informality, the seemingly ubiquitous “Hi”.  No such luck. One is addressed as if a raw recruit in a ragamuffin army.

As for placatory language… Apart from the perfunctory apology, the narrative is couched to apportion blame: first to the travel agent (I wonder how inclined she may be to use Virgin again?) and then to the customer.

Corporate communicators have a duty to portray a good image of their company, under all circumstances. Don’t seek to shift the blame.

And for heaven’s sake, learn to write decently.

It is simple. Honestly, it is. Just take the trouble. Attend a course (such as those offered by ourselves at Quo Vadis Communications!) or get someone proficient to check your writing, and employ a professional to deal with matters of image, especially when it comes to the written word. 

Not to do so is to dilute that image. In the case of Virgin, we are pretty sure Sir Richard Branson would not approve.   After all, the use of such poor language (and I have deliberately not even gone into the corporate bloody-mindedness inherent in the length it took to reply) suggests that one is merely a cog in the bigger machine. Such a pity, because Virgin always appeared to be the exception in this regard.

Building a brand like Virgin takes just too much hard work to undo it all by employing sloppy communication.

A final thought. Before a spokesperson (who should ideally be an able communicator and language practitioner) bashes out a thoughtless reply on a keyboard and hurriedly presses the “Send” button, he or she should at least have one thought uppermost: who is this person I am addressing?

In these days of social media, one’s reply might just become part of a learning tutorial in someone’s Blog…

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12 thoughts on “Tutorial for virgin grammarians

  1. Forgive me, dear Theo, but I laughed. It’s cringeworthy and something which I would escalate to their marketing people. Who I suspect, would be horrified. Amazing that a heritage brand like this can have its reputation left in the hands of a low-EQ nincompoop. A functionally illiterate one at that.

    • Not surprised you laughed Clive. But laughter from sadness, if one were to be honest, I suspect! Sadness that corporate communications has been allowed – by the corporates – to sink to this low level. I have not escalated it yet, but I know the travel agent in question has been in touch with the local executives. I think we should offer a freebie course to an executive of their choice.

  2. Absolutely terrible Theo. It’s difficult to believe that someone does and is allowed to communicate in that way. The sad thing for me is that when you see the way English is taught in our schools nowadays, it’s not surprising.

    • Too true, Don. See my reply to Clive Simpkins as well. The tragedy is that the corporate executives, in many instances, know little better themselves. But one would think that those of a global brand would. My own experience, however, is that the executives responsible for ensuring proficient communication are all too often too proud to admit that it is they, in the first instance, who need to learn how to communicate. Hence a mess such as this.

  3. A delegate to one of our past courses called to say that both issues here are communication-related – the length of time taken to reply to the first email as well as the standard of language. She is correct. But it got me thinking that I was remiss in not noting specifically that the tardiness in replying as well as the poor language are the responsibility of the writer’s line manager, and his/her line manager, and right up the line to the Chief Communications Officer of the company. And it is obvious who that is. In the event, we have offered a free place on the next organisational communications course to be run by Quo Vadis Communications to the writer’s immediate manager.

  4. Hi Theo, I would like to apologise for the delay you experienced in receiving a response to your original query – our policy is that complaints should be answered within 14 days. With regards to the email you later received, the punctuation falls below the standard we would expect. We appreciate your comments which have been duly noted and we are looking into this with our Customer Relations team.
    – Bonita, Marketing & Communications Executive

    • 14 days to respond to a complaint? Somehow this doesn’t jive with the concept I have (had, now?) of the Virgin brand. I would escalate this to London.

    • Thanks Bonita, but your reply suggests you have only cursorily read what I said in my Blog and simply put, you do not understand its full import as a result. The issue is more than just punctuation. It is about grammar – no sentence construction to speak of, for example. It is about the manner in which Virgin Atlantic, in its email, treats the customer – in a cavalier attitude which says “Go away!” And then blames the customer, both passenger and travel agent. As for the 14 days for your replies to complaints, all one can say is thank heavens your planes take less than 14 HOURS to fly between London and Johannesburg. But, given your turnaround time for a simple email, it is not surprising that your Country Manager, South Africa, Simon Newton-Smith, has not yet had the courtesy to reply to our email – I know, I know, this was sent only two days ago and you take 14 days to deal with anything like this! – inviting him to send a delegate, at our expense, to our next organisational communication courses (let alone express appreciation for our offer, whatever he wishes to do with it). Virgin Atlantic’s organisational communications on this issue continues to have a strong whiff of sulphur about it. And this should be a lesson to all corporate communicators out there.

  5. Reblogged this on Just another day in my life and commented:
    Excellent article.

  6. Jill Gribble on said:

    Hi Theo
    And Bonita nogal writes ‘ … with regards to your email …’, another of my worst hates.
    I travelled on Mango yesterday and, among other strange English coinings (?) on their advertising video, I read that some pop musician was ‘ … upping the antics …’.
    A clown, presumably.

    • Hi Jill, Great to hear from you, and your comment made me chuckle with delight! I think there is room for a Blog that highlights language that is current, and explores whether in the fullness of time it will add to our understanding and appreciation of English (which some of it may) or whether it is simply nonsensical.

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