Second thoughts about AirAsia’s online engagement

Next Friday I’m taking three weeks off.  Last year I used up all my leave for study, just to get myself graduated.  The piece of paper, the black cape and the photo with the blue background, it’s all about making Mum happy, but it was a relief to finally get there.  My last holiday was in 2009, and that was two-parts conference, one part leisure, so it was not that relaxing.  This year I’m going to KL for three days, Bali for four, then Vietnam for a week.  A busy itinerary but lots of interesting experiences I hope.

I’m flying Malaysian Airlines to KL and from Saigon back to Melbourne.  Those flights are the backbone of my trip.  The limbs are shorter flights, from KL to Denpasar, and Denpasar to Jakarta and onward to Saigon.  I’ve been hoping to fly AirAsia for those flights.  But for weeks, their site has repeatedly declined my Westpac Mastercard.  It turns out I’m not alone.  I’m a classic Gen Y – I will exhaust every other option before I get on the phone – so I tried their e-form, their online chat, Twitter accounts (@airasia, @askairasia, @tonyfernandes) – before finally calling.

The online information services all gave me unhelpful advice or canned lines.

In response to your email, we are extremely sorry to hear that you were experience difficulties while making online booking with us. We would like to inform that we currently having difficulty in verifying some card issued by certain bank. We recommend that you to use another credit card to make your purchase.

@airasia Hi, suggest you try to book with a different card 🙂

e-Chat:  Try signing into ‘My Account’ on our website and registering your card as a 1-Click payment option, or use one of our Direct Debit services.

AirAsia claim that Paypal can be used for transactions from Australia, but they seem to determine your country of origin based on the currency you select or your destination, and AUD is no longer listed in their currencies list, so that left me with Indonesian and Vietnamese bank options.

Finally I called and the operator I spoke with confirmed that AirAsia has been having a problem with Westpac Mastercards.  So this afternoon I hit up Australia Post, picked up a prepaid Visa debit card, loaded it and used it successfully to book my flights.

I used to like AirAsia.  They’re quick and efficient with a friendly public image.  Now, I’m not so sure.  There are two possibilities:

  • They might be incompetent as a learning organisation, so that knowledge available to their call centre doesn’t get passed onto their online team.
  • Or more likely, they don’t want to admit a failing in an online environment, fearing it will ‘go viral’ and get RT’d all over Twitter.

But let’s look at this from the customer’s point of view: what is the value of having online contact methods if you get bad information from them?  You’re just wasting my time inviting me to contact you online if you’re not going to be honest and upfront in that space.  And you’re wasting my money; in the time I spent trying to fix this issue, three or four weeks, the price of the flights increased.

AirAsia got my money and my custom, but lost my respect in the process. Isn’t that what online engagement is meant to strengthen – the customer relationship?

If there’s one thing Australians hate, it’s companies who treat us like idiots.  It was instructive when National Express – who operate large chunks of the train system in Britain – quit their contracts in Melbourne because the operating environment was just too difficult.  We’re meaner than Britons, for god’s sake.

A few years later, Connex got the boot for essentially similar reasons – everyone knew they weren’t responsible for the rolling stock and track work that was causing the delays, but their inept public relations pissed us all off.  I’m betting Tiger Airways is next – they’re mean, obsessed with rules, and their ‘lounge’ is little more than a cage on the tarmac.  To date AirAsia has done a struck a good balance between friendliness and efficiency in the Australian setting – but this experience creates doubt about their ability to sustain it.


@AirAsia Hi, we will highlight your feedback to the relevant team for improvement. Thank you 🙂


Couple of intriguing developments in the referrer stats for this blog post.  A number of visits came via, which I’m guessing is the Twitter CRM platform used by AirAsia.  Another visit came via a Google search for the blog title and my full name, which feels a little bit invasive – but then again I do put myself out there.  Most intriguing is a visit via a Google search for “airasia”.  My first thought was “Aha! Proof that blogging about bad customer experience can help create pressure for change.”  Until I ran the search myself… I stopped looking after twenty pages of results.  (My guess is that AirAsia has invested in a huge amount of SEO; for example, the Skytrax customer review page for AirAsia doesn’t appear until page 18 of the search results.)  Some poor numpty has had to keep clicking until they found it, probably to ascertain where, and then (god bless ’em) they clicked that link and let me know they were looking.

The experts

In a meeting, recently, I asked about how a particular media story had come into being. Mostly out of curiosity, because I do a lot of work analysing stories and their impact after publication, but I don’t do much on how they come to be stories in the first place.

Media liaison in community organisations is invariably the exclusive responsibility of executive officers and Board presidents. Mid-range orgs might hire a PR company and the major orgs (like VicHealth) will have their own media team.

Everyone else is counselled not to engage with the media.

Media engagement, in other words, is seen as a matter of organisational risk management.

Yet gay community life has become radically intermediated (Hurley, 2003).

What does that mean?

As a network of personal and social relationships, gay community still exists — but those relationships are inter-mediated, i.e. the connection is made through communications media. And our engagement with gay identity and community increasingly takes the form of consuming entertainment and news media, e.g. watching Glee and True Blood, rather than turning up in real spaces like gay clubs.

Something similar is beginning to happen in ethnic communities, as well (O’Mara, 2010).  In one refugee community in Melbourne, newly-arrived from one of the least developed countries on earth, I recently learned the best way to contact people is through word of mouth via Facebook and SMS. In another community, adult women bypass local health information altogether, and find information and entertainment in their own language via the Internet and cable television.

And all around Australia, agencies are earnestly trying to reach them with printed information, brochures and posters, in simple English and clunky translations.

In other words, if health promotion doesn’t engage with the media — news and entertainment, informative and social — that’s a recipe for irrelevance and ineffectiveness.  But the suggestion I heard was, ‘there’s no point in a bunch of health workers sitting around talking about the media.’  We should leave that to the experts.

So I was very interested to read this speech by long-time Labor Senator John Faulkner, talking about the impact of ‘leaving it to the experts’ on Labor’s effectiveness and relevance.  These words in particular:

Progressive, socially aware activists passionate about social and economic reform must never be outsiders to the Labor movement.

Labor cannot thrive as an association of political professionals focused on the machinery of electoral victory and forming, at best, contingent alliances with Australians motivated by and committed to ideals and policies.

A Party organisation staffed by experienced and competent strategists and managers is necessary to serve the campaign and organisational needs of Labor’s members and supporters, not to substitute for them.

The same is true for health promotion and community organisations.  Risk management is important, but it’s not our purpose.

Search as a journey

Project Info Literacy:
Why is search so difficult for college students, especially the first few steps of search?

Peter Morville:
This finding is emblematic of the intimate relationship between search, learning, and decision making, and it brings to mind the paradox of choice. After all, the search box offers unrivaled selection. You can ask it any question. Or at least it often feels that way. For a student, this freedom can be simultaneously exhilarating and totally paralyzing.

Also, most students lack a useful mental model of search. They don’t know how search works or what’s being searched, which may be fine for casual Googling but not for navigating dozens of research databases.

Finally, selecting a topic is inherently difficult. It’s like buying a house or finding a spouse. The process is fuzzy and uncomfortable because we’re not sure what we want. So, all too often, we procrastinate. We wait until the last minute to begin, which is a shame because getting started is half the battle.

The key is to recognize that search can be an iterative, interactive journey of discovery that not only helps us find what we need but also lets us learn what we want to find. When we embrace this more playful model of exploratory search, it’s not so hard to get started.  (source)

New paradigms

I’m in Sydney, sampling a day of the Australian sexual health and HIV medicine conferences.  Most of the really exciting social research is presented these days at biomedical conferences, because they are prestigious.

Working in the community health sector, a day is all my PD budget can afford, unless I approach a pharmaceutical company to sponsor my attendance. It’s a big problem if community workers can’t afford to take part, because we need that knowledge too.

Graham Hart from University College London just gave an incredibly lucid presentation on the change in paradigm he’s seeing in HIV prevention.

Where research used to focus heavily on individual behaviour, and how it interacted with the biology of STI, now we’re looking at the behaviour (and structure) of people in groups, and the overall ecology of STI, plus time,  because epidemics change as they ‘mature’.

In the past decade, we’ve seen a very mild upward trend in the number of men who have unprotected sex with casual partners.  Hart puts up UK data showing about 20% of gay/bi men had this kind of sex in the previous year.

He puts up another slide showing the number of men who report ‘serosorting’ (deliberately choosing a partner who reports the same HIV status for unprotected sex) has increased from about 7 to about 18% in the past decade.

This he attributes to the impact of the Internet, although I’m told serosorting showed up in Australian data from the 1980’s — almost as soon as the HIV antibody test became available.  My guess is that serosorting is not, actually, a new development; having a name for the phenomenon is what’s new.

This is why we need a sociology of HIV prevention research and practice, since there are trends and patterns in how long-existing practices ‘in the real world’ get named and tagged as the ‘next big thing’ in HIV prevention.

In fact, Hart touches on this issue.  He talks us through a range of new approaches, including biomedical and ‘social structural’ interventions.

Biomedical techniques include circumcision, lubricating gels with anti-HIV ingredients, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) which is basically taking PEP before you fuck unsafely.

Hart points out that even circumcision, the most effective biomedical intervention found to date, is less effective than consistent condom use.

He tells the audience, “don’t give up on condoms just yet.”

I couldn’t agree more.  With Ford Hickson, I’m very, very skeptical of the claim that “condoms are failing”.  Ford points out that people who say prevention is failing want it to fail so they can take the money and do it themselves.

(And not because they’re bad people.  That’s just a consequence of how funding processes put us in competition, not collaboration, with each other.)

Instead, our benchmark should be about 70-80% of gay/bisexual men practicing consistent condom use during casual sex… or maybe even most of the time. That’s about the best any country ever been achieved.

Setting that benchmark lets us ask how we divide up and target the rest.  Only 1-2% of them are the “barebackers” that 99-100% of media coverage and community debate has focused on.  The rest are just guys who occasionally have unprotected sex.

That includes me, by the way.  Once, ever.  With a guy in a sauna.  It was his first time being fucked.  We knew and liked each other.  I knew he was a consistent condom user with his other partners.

With these ‘occasional’ guys, as Michael Hurley says, the infrequency of the occasions is a marker of their general commitment to safe sex.

When it is infrequent, although there are fewer occasions of risk, the intensity of risk might actually increase, because those men have less practice in risk reduction techniques that can help prevent HIV transmission during unprotected sex.

And if it occurs without planning, they may not be prepared to ask questions about their partner’s history of occasional unprotected sex and sexual health testing.

There have been resources in Australia that talk about those ‘risk reduction’ techniques, such as HIV-Positive Gay Sex (AFAO), but nothing I know about that has talked honestly to gay men about occasional unprotected sex.

We really need to start doing that, and I’m hoping tomorrow’s policy forum on “HIV from Epidemic to Endemic” will help start that conversation.

In closing, I want to ask a provocative question.  It picks up on Hart’s message “don’t give up on condoms just yet.”  He wasn’t talking to gay men.  He was talking to an audience of people working in sexual health medicine: doctors, nurses, researchers, and policy people.

Here’s my question:  is it possible we might be pushing for biomedical interventions that are less effective than condoms just because professional audiences are bored by hearing about condoms?

Reckless Young Gay Barebackers

Forgive me, please, but I am pissed off to the point of despair.

Doug Pollard, the original ‘Rainbow Reporter’ and for a gay news addict, the voice of God, posted this Guardian article on Facebook.

Simon Papson, an amateur thespian and semi-pro writer of aggrieved letters to the editor, had the following little moment of “I told you so” for yours truly…

No argument from me. I tried to make this very same point right here last year, and was shouted down by a friend of yours as being wrong. “Young gay men only want monogamy and safe sex,” he said. Hmph.

And when I called him on putting words in my mouth…

You didn’t use THOSE EXACT WORDS, but you strongly argued with me when I said the opposite. Even pointed to studies which confirmed that young men were looking only for monogamy and safe sex, to make your point. Any time I mentioned a significant sub-culture of casual unsafe sex among young gay men, you disputed its existence.

The irony here is that I got my head kicked in MCV for weeks by VAC after I raised concerns about HIV infection rates among young men – in particular the fact VAC waited until infection rates began to rise before investing in a prevention campaign that targeted younger gay men specifically.

The problem with what Papson said, in both cases, is the word ‘only’.

As I wrote here, young men have different, age-specific concerns about HIV and sex, relevant to the challenges they’re facing at that point in their lives.  Such as finding partners, forming relationships, dealing with monogamy and infidelity, and figuring out how to have safe, unprotected sex in relationships.

“Not invariably, but generally” <– what I said.

And yes, I cited more than one paper to support that argument.  It’s quite bizarre that people like Papson want to dismiss as unreliable all the research I cite and rely entirely on articles in non-scientific outlets like the Guardian.

Sorry, what the fuck?  How is that more reliable?

Let’s look at that Guardian article.  The headline does all the damage:  “Young gay men fuelling HIV epidemic, study warns”.  Unfortunately, that headline is a close derivative of the headline on the press release issued by the journal that’s publishing the study. The study article itself is not an easy read, so I’m going to try and summarise it in plain English here.

The study analysed the similarity of genetic code taken from HIV in blood samples from 519 HIV-positive patients at a clinic in Belgium over seven years.  This technique is called phylogenetic analysis.  Phylo- means ‘tree’ in Greek, and scientists are basically computing a viral ‘family tree’ showing whose infections are related.

In this study, they found quite a large number of ‘clusters’, where people had viruses similar enough to say they were related. The study found that men in those clusters were younger than men outside of clusters.

Not “young”.  Younger. The median age of those “younger” gay men was 36 years old, compared to 38 years in the non-cluster group.  (PDF p25).

Now, let me get back to Papson.  Papson offers a version of the RYGB meme.  That stands for Reckless Young Gay Barebackers.

When HIV infection rates first started rising, a number of commentators, from Steve Dow to Adam Carr, leapt to the intuitive but wrong conclusion that the rises were being driven by barebacking among young men who never lived through the AIDS crisis and therefore suffered from complacency.

It took a long time for the AIDS Council to get the message across that infections were happening among men in their thirties and forties, and they got their heads kicked repeatedly in the gay press all the while.

As a result, they developed a defensive, kneejerk response to any mention of young gay men and HIV risk, even from their own staff members.

The RYGB meme actually made it harder to raise awareness of the issues facing young gay men.

Papson’s no doubt patting himself on the back for fighting the good fight against a “sub-culture of casual unsafe sex” amongst young gay men;  meanwhile I’m banging my head against a desk…

Communicating health risk in a context of uncertainty

In my writing about criminalisation and HIV stigma I have been strongly critical of the rational-individual ‘model’ (assumption) that underpins the health psychology and economics upon which so much of public health practice is based. I’ve argued we can learn a lot instead from behavioural economics and bounded rationality.

One of the biggest bounds (limits) on human rationality is the finite nature of what we know, especially with respect to what’s likely to happen in the future or about some newly-emerged and previously unknown problem or technology.

Nobel prize-winning research by Kahneman and Tversky (1979) developed ‘prospect theory’, which shows that in economic decisions, rather a lot depends upon how a prospect is framed — in particular in terms of whether it involves possible loss or gain.

There have been some rather clunky attempts to incorporate this insight into health promotion, such as by framing condom use in terms of what someone has to lose. It’s an important insight but it involves translating health behaviour into economic terms, which as Dan Ariely points out has a suppressive effect on social norms like altruism — not ideal!

Today and tomorrow, I’m attending the NCHSR Social Research Conference at the University of New South Wales. At this morning’s opening plenary, Alan Peterson from Monash University is presenting on communicating health risk in a context of uncertainty. He argues early framing of risks is influential upon subsequent responses: think about the panic about the high death rate in the early days of H1N1 flu in Mexico.

Continue reading “Communicating health risk in a context of uncertainty”

Shining a light on campaign strategy

Who knew it could be so controversial calling for HIV prevention campaigns tailored for gay men under thirty?

I’m saying gay men under thirty have different prevention information needs, and good campaign strategy shouldn’t wait until infection rates begin rising before investing in campaigns tailored to meet those needs.

That’s just common sense, and not a very exciting news story, until the AIDS Council disagrees — and then there’s a fight and quick, everybody, gather round! Place your bets and let’s get ready to rumble… In yesterday’s edition of MCV, by Rachel Cook, I read:

‘”Anyone who understands anything about health promotion wouldn’t attempt to blame the ads,” Kennedy said. “We do not agree with Daniel’s analysis and his claim that VAC does nothing for young, gay men is just demonstrably false.”‘

I don’t blame the ads for rising infection rates, and I don’t claim VAC does nothing for young gay men. Putting words in my mouth doesn’t help Mike’s credibility in responding to my concerns.

The hostile response does illustrate why I don’t place much weight on the feedback VAC quotes in support of the porn image campaign’s relevance to men under thirty. When they react with such hostility to criticism, it’s little wonder they don’t hear it much.

In my case, it’s a massive overreaction, since I am broadly supportive of that campaign: infection rates have steadied in the age brackets it was designed for. I’m concerned about a lack of campaigns targeted for men under thirty, and the porn image campaign doesn’t cover them.

Apparently, when they’re not in the country, Mike Kennedy, Colin Batrouney (health promotion manager) and Jason Asselin (health educator) are happy to agree with me. For example:

Kennedy M, Batrouney C, Asselin J (2008) “Shining a light on gay anal sex: community reactions to an explicit campaign promoting condom use for anal sex with casual partnersAIDS 2008 XVII International AIDS Conference (Abstract THPE0387).

They describe holding “focus groups with the campaign’s target population, men in their 30s and 40s” and later conclude “prevention campaigns will need precise targeting and generalised campaigns will be less effective”.

In their own words, the campaign was not developed for (or focus tested with) men under thirty, campaigns need precise targeting, and you can’t rely on a single campaign to fit everybody.

Again, quoting Mike’s own words, the porn image campaign achieved only 40% recognition among men under thirty at Midsumma Carnival. (Okay, the “only” part is mine.)

Coming back to how VAC receives critical feedback: the abstract states “Community responses were generally very positive but an interesting subset of negative responses was demonstrably tapping into internalised homophobia triggered by images of gay sex in public media.”

This makes it clear the authors interpret positive feedback as the general rule and critical feedback as the exception. It concerns me that the Executive Director of an organisation that provides counselling feels it’s okay to diagnose internalised homophobia in men he’s never met, simply because they don’t identify with images/themes in a campaign, and to dismiss their responses on that basis.

Some audience members do experience internalised homophobia; in fact, it’s something we all struggle to overcome. Research by the American psychologists Michael Ross, Simon Rosser and colleagues (2008) in AIDS Education & Prevention has shown a strong connection between internalised homonegativity and increased rates of unsafe sex.

Kennedy, Batrouney & Asselin’s abstract admits the porn image campaign does not meet the needs of those men.

Continuing the theme of VAC not taking critical responses seriously, the abstract suggests “Campaign design should include draft responses to such negative criticism”. In other words, community debate is met with message management and canned public relations messages.

I’m going to conclude with a question: if Mike is right and there was no lack of campaigns targeting young men specifically, why did they just accept Department of Health funding to develop one?


More bad advice from the Manhunt “Cruise Director” Michael Alvear

You have to be a Manhunt member to read the Cruise Director posts, so I’m including it here – apologies for the long excerpt!

How Do I Overcome My Fear Of Having Sex?
By transferring your irrational fear of safe sex into a rational fear of unsafe sex.

Yo, Mike!
I had my first HIV test about two-and-a-half years ago. I’m sorry to say that I had it done because I was a bit “irresponsible” in my teen years. Glad to say my test came back NEGATIVE and ever since, promised myself I’d never have unprotected sex again. Unfortunately, that has not been 100% the case. I’ve had two more HIV tests since, both of which were a requirement at the companies I’ve worked at. I am once again thankful to say they were both negative.

However, the whole HIV-test process has taken a real emotional toll on me, since I have become terrified of having sex. Every time I meet I guy I’m scared to go near his dick, for fear I might catch something. The fact that condoms are not 100% safe makes me terribly uneasy and incapable of having a good, nice fuck.

Continue reading “More bad advice from the Manhunt “Cruise Director” Michael Alvear”