@flyingwithfish or Steven Frischling: The Airline Social Media Fraud

Around 2008/2009, airlines and travel agencies were just discovering social media. The success of Jetblue at raking in a million followers and selling tickets via Twitter had inspired airlines to dream big. Maybe, just maybe, they could just do away with the millions in print and electronic ads and do all their stuff with this new phenomenon called social media? Airlines wanted a magic solution, a silver bullet to take their social media campaigns off the ground.
Steven Fraudster: The Fraud Geek
There is always a man for every task
During this period, a new breed of human beings emerged, the social media strategists. These were people who were very good with social media and had proved capable of building vibrant online communities around brands. They were tech-savvy like me, and they knew how to use every social media tool on the web. Their experiences were derived from constant use. And this knowledge of new media was a boon to the rigid airline marketing executives who only communicated via emails. Amongst this breed was the 23 year old me, yes me: a college student and charged with building an online media brand for an airline. Yes, these were exciting times! By the end of 2009, virtually almost all airlines in the world had Facebook pages, were on Twitter and were thinking of building blogs; a testament to the painstaking work that our tribe did! Kudos to all airline social media executives: Paula Berg, Addison Schonland, Shashank Nigam and everyone else I forgot to mention.

Most of us of course moved on to new careers, more exciting but the experience of deploying social media to address traveler's woes has remained with us. I still believe in the power of social media. And we still apply those experiences at the slightest opportunity. But amongst the good fellas who pioneered this new phenomenon, there was one douchebag called Steven Frischling; a fraudulent guy who had used his skills to build a fishy online brand as a "Travel Strategist". Steven Frischling is to social media campaigns what burglars are to expensive art. Armed with the internet, and I must assume, loads of idle time(the current global job market offers an evil but creative mind some ample playground, especially if this idler has access to the internet), he would hop onto hundreds of airline websites in the "Contact Us" pages collecting email information. What followed next was an avalanche of social media consulting offers. He would search info about airline, pick some tips from Slideshare and package the half-baked ideas carefully as his own; offering road maps to a social media paradise.

Of course a lot of this information was inaccurate but in a corporate environment, an unsolicited email is an order of the day. A few weeks passed by and then one day, we started noticing a new account impersonating our official airline Twitter account. It was Steven Frischling. He was simply searching for mentions of the airline on Twitter and then replying to conversations from passengers etc with misinformation. It was his way of taking revenge. I told a few of his peers like Shashank Nigam about it and Shashank was shocked. Apparently and in  all his delusions, Frischling had informed people that he already worked for the airline. Shashank asked me, "U mean he never worked with XXXX Airlines at all? Sure. Thanks for sharing. Strange things I hear about Fish from you... he has a good reputation" Shashank, a great guy by any measure, could never comprehend Steven Frischling doing all these things; falsely claiming to work for an airline, creating a fake Twitter account to impersonate an airline, sending emails of blackmail, threatening to sue for $1 million(sic), apparently because his ideas which he had hastily picked from Slideshare (probably from Shashank himself) and other internet articles and then sent to the airline in an unsolicited email, had apparently been "stolen". And for that Steven Frischling wanted $1 million!

Steven Frischling promising to take the fake Twitter account offline if I contacted my boss and convinced him to acquiesce to his $1 million demand. Apparently, he could contact people on Twitter to take the account down in 3-5 days instead of the arduous wait of 90 days. Though he didn't admit direct liability he gave enough indications in our conversations to convince us that he was actually the culprit and it was obvious to us that the person he would contact in 3-5 days was HIMSELF! After I threatened to expose him via a blog post like this one, the account went offline 6 hours later. He contacted himself too soon :-)

Most normal people cannot comprehend this behavior. My boss then, a great guy who was doing wonderful digital initiatives at the airline and who had taken a bold move to adopt social media at a time when it was anathema to most companies including airlines was shocked beyond words. In the corporate world where people fancy doing things in an appropriate manner, Steven's antics are like a scene in a horror movie.

Eventually we decided to simply ignore him and by the time I left, the airline's social media campaign was a shining example for others to follow. Steven the douchebag eventually gave up when he realized that his hope of netting  $ 1 million from fraud was just a bad dream but not before giving one last kick. He published an article on Boarding Area in which he expounded on his claims of how the airline had used "his ideas" and how he had a paper trail etc. In a twist of irony, he was even interviewed by Addison Schonland on the popular Innovation Analysis Group, IAG podcasts where with a mountain of lies and half truths, he lied about the whole episode and offered airlines tips on how to best handle social media campaigns.That too eventually passed.

Several months later, Addison Schonland and the Innovation Analysis Group approached me for a partnership and we worked out an agreement where I was to help in securing contracts for IAG with African airlines and travel companies. I have deep respect for Addison, so I accepted. But then Steven started the fateful KLM blog project and my contacts on realizing that Steven was associated with IAG, simply backed off. It's a small world and Steven's behavior was known in the circles. I too, was forced to quit under the circumstances. That was the end for me too of my engagement with airline social media initiatives or corporate social media initiatives whatever you call it. As an engineer and also someone who values truth and accomplishing things in a straight forward manner, this complex twist of betrayal, lack of ethics and backstabbing was just too much for me.

My only regret was that I did not fire a warning letter to KLM early in 2010 when I realized Steven was about to begin work on their blog.

Unfortunately, I cannot share the emails exchanged between me and Steven in official capacity in the past as it would be a gross breach of ethics. I can only share personal correspondence which is limited to Twitter DMs and one email message.

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