Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place!

Is anybody happy?

It might as well be Applegate in a revival of Damn Yankees asking the question, with a wiseguy up in the balcony with a clever comeback. (“Nope!”)

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Nobody is happy. Nobody will every be completely happy.

That’s today’s lesson about consumer advocacy, my friends. Two reader emails, each received within a week of each other and possibly even written about the same story, illustrate my point.

Here’s the first, which is about this Travel Troubleshooter piece:

While I enjoy the educational aspects of your travel column, I am tired of reading the gripes from travelers who could have prevented their travel problems.

For example, a recent honeymoon in Costa Rica complaint could have been prevented if travel insurance, which was offered by the vacation company, was purchased by the travelers. But no, instead they want to go the cheap route and forgo a safety net, then lament when their flight is cancelled and the resort doesn’t “give” them an extra day.

The traveler should have purchased vacation insurance beforehand instead of whining about a lost day after the fact. Or, should have gone after Delta to compensate for added expenses.

Businesses can’t keep “giving” consumers freebies. If they do, the business will be out of business. And consumers need to take responsibility for their decisions. I wonder if the honeymoon complainer has life insurance or simply expects someone else to foot the bill for that, too.

Ouch. So I should really run this advocacy by the book — no exceptions?

Then I got this one:

I admire your writing, your Web site and your knowledge of the business – and the style of writing I find on your emails. As a PR counselor, I’m offering you some unsolicited advice, and doing so because I want to help you. So here goes, and please don’t be offended.

In all the years I’ve known you/your work, I’ve enjoyed your casual and friendly writing style, and commitment to helping travelers and telling both sides of the story. However, in your syndicated news columns, your style is different and some of my colleagues who follow you also have noticed this too.

What is different? When a traveler is in the wrong, or screwed up something, of course we appreciate that you explain what went wrong on both sides. But your tone sometimes comes across as sort of arrogant – blaming the traveler for mistakes. Sorry, I don’t know how else to say this, and I DON’T consider you to be arrogant, and I don’t want others to have that impression!

If you could state the same facts, but in a slightly different way, the read could be entirely different. For example: “You should have booked this differently and….” could be “Unfortunately, you booked this incorrectly and the XX is right in refusing you a refund. To avoid this happening again, you might consider….”

Arrogant? Moi?

OK, so I shouldn’t do this by the book, then? And telling travelers they’ve done something wrong is obnoxious?

If you read the comments on my site, you’ll notice that feedback like this is offered with some regularity. The difference is that these emails were sent to me directly only a few days apart.

I agree with both of them. And I disagree.

I believe that rules are rules and yeah, I can sometimes come across as a little abrasive. At the same time, company policies are often terribly misguided and customer-hostile. Also, how can you tell someone they’re wrong without sounding just a little sanctimonious?

What’s illuminating about these missives is what it means to the rest of us who are out there fighting the good fight against corporate America and its unfortunate business practices. The line between “must” and “should” is a fine one, as I pointed out in a post earlier today. So is the line, apparently, between good advice and journalistic arrogance.

Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place!

(Photo: Timbo Don/Flickr Creative Commons)

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