A guy named Dustin Curtis visited the American Airlines website and found it to be a confusing and disharmonious experience. As a designer himself, he couldn't understand why a large company that sells much of its product online would have a website that looks like a cross between a Geocites homepage and a squatter's portal. So he wrote them a letter.
I don't know what Dustin expected to accomplish. Perhaps he thought that his suggestions might be welcomed and that there was a chance he could get some work out of it. I've written a similar letter to a jetshare company whose Internet image was the complete opposite of the high end professionalism the copy professed, and I just wanted to tell them. The way you might tell someone they have a taillight out. People need to know these things and don't always notice them themselves.
A member of the American Airlines design team replied to Dustin. The gist of the reply was, "I agree the site needs work; it's hard to change things in such a large company, but wait patiently and you will see." Dustin was thrilled to hear that someone cared about the site, reversed his opinion of the designers' competence and said so on his blog. An hour after he posted an anonymized version of the reply, the author of the e-mail was fired.
Ostensibly, he was fired for violating the non-disclosure agreement he signed with AA. Billy Sanez, Director of Corporate Communications at American says "We have employees all over the world using social media to communicate. The issue is not posting for us, it is revealing company secrets." What did he reveal? It's certainly no secret that AA is a large company with many departments. Were the spilled beans this list of planned improvements?
Some of our slated efforts include improved navigation; 16 column grid-based layouts; a lighter, more airy visual design; improved user interactions; and an increased transparency to fares and sales policies across the board.
How dare you reveal to our competitors that we plan to improve the user interface! I can't see that that's the real reason, though. The real sin was breaking the facade of unity in the company. That's no secret. It's so unsecret that rather than redesigning the site, AA has created three new booking portals for subdemographics. They're just as cluttered, but they think they can increase their appeal to gays, blacks and women by providing us all with separate drinking fountains. I guess if you're a black lesbian you have your pick. I can be snarky because I don't work for AA.
It doesn't matter how many coworkers you have: you don't tell the customer the landing sucked because your copilot made a lousy landing; you can't tell the charter passenger you're an hour late because management told the dispatcher to schedule two pickups at the same time; and you don't tell them the website sucks because 200 departments are fighting it out for space on the front page. It's tempting to do so, because the quickest way to get the customer off your personal back is to side with them and designate a new, common enemy to blame it all on. But you have to keep ranks.
I worked for a chief pilot once who took this one further. We kept ranks not only within the company but with the regulator, too. He forbade us to use phrases such as "Transport Canada requires you to remain seated with your seatbelt fastened." We weren't to transfer any safety demands to another organization but to make them a personal requirement by us, the flight crew, for your safety. I don't think it was a coincidence that this chief pilot had the best relationship with Transport I've ever seen. He didn't just say that we were all in it together for safety, he meant it.
But we were still free to blame everything on the weather.