Air Canada printed 'get screwed' in an FAQ. Other companies should be taking note.

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Air Canada printed 'get screwed' in an FAQ. Other companies should be taking note. 

By David Leibl

 

As the owner of a communications business I write a lot of FAQs. 

Good FAQs are the workhorses of the communications rollout whenever clients are planning new projects or navigating change. Low-tech but highly functional, FAQs keep messaging focused, they're scalable, and they're simple to update and tailor for different audiences. 

But good FAQs are also hard to write, and FAQs written by big companies are often guilty of the very worst type of writing crime:

They're boring. 

Corporate or institutional FAQs tend to be bloated and bureaucratic. They often read more like well-vetted talking points than questions real people might actually ask. 

And that’s why Air Canada’s FAQ about the future of its rewards program is so refreshing: 

It answers real questions.

It uses plain, conversational language.

It’s clearly aimed at real people.

Most notably, Air Canada's FAQ exhibits an all-too-rare fearlessness about addressing difficult, critical or potentially unflattering commentary. 

Consider this question from a customer named Wilson:

Why do I get the feeling I am going to get screwed?

Few organizations, big companies in particular, would allow that kind of unvarnished language in a public-facing document. But Air Canada engages with the questioner directly, and the effect is significant:

  • It personalizes and humanizes Air Canada’s communication around a major change, which is something large organizations invariably struggle with; 
  • It signals a genuine interest in listening to customer feedback, regardless of whether it’s bad or good;
  • It acknowledges that change can be uncertain and frustrating, instead of pretending that large-scale change is painless;
  • It helps prove that as the change unfolds the company will be focused on people as much as process. 
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Walking the walk with respect to conversational, human language often pushes organizations out of their comfort zone, but it’s increasingly vital in a world that has a diminished tolerance for faceless communication, industry-speak or spin.

While business jargon is forgettable and even alienating, engaging on a human level cultivates understanding, earns trust and nourishes durable relationships.

Granted, other parts of Air Canada’s FAQ aren’t nearly as memorable (it’s still an FAQ after all, not a work of prose, and parts of the FAQ read like any other) but the document has a demonstrably human side and speaks directly to its audience -- both benchmarks all corporate writing should aspire to. The "previously answered questions" section that begins halfway down the page is particularly strong. 

It’s my experience that FAQs aren’t going anywhere. The fact they’re relatively cheap, adaptable across devices, easy to update and compatible with social tools means they’ll remain part of the communications toolkit for the foreseeable future. 

The job for communicators and leaders is to keep getting better at writing them. It takes practice (and often many drafts) to find the balance between ensuring stakeholders feel heard while also advancing core messages and organizational objectives. 

The communications landscape is changing, and organizations are often still figuring out how to reliably find the sweet spot between responsive, conversational language and message discipline and control. 

An ability to engage employees and customers on a human level is an evolving art, but the organizations that consistently do it well will be the ones who stand further apart as the communications landscape continues to shift. 

 

David Leibl is principal of Guidepost Strategies. 

 

 
David Leibl