Using Rideshare Services Isn’t Easy When You Have a Service Animal. That Needs to Change.

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This post originally appeared on the Rooted In Rights blog.

Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in The Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus and I'd still have to bum rides off of people.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

My service dog, Pico, is a representation of freedom and independence that I might not otherwise have. Being his handler has brought me into a realm of disability advocacy I am grateful for: I am an ambassador for Canine Companions For Independence and an advocate for the estimated 385,000 working service dog teams across the United States.

For the nearly five years I’ve worked with Pico, one of the biggest struggles we’ve encountered is using rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. An estimated 53 percent of the U.S. population has used a ride-hailing platform. Globally, Uber and Lyft complete 16 million rides daily, with Uber taking roughly 70 percent of the market share to Lyft’s 30percent. Yet for people with disabilities, these platforms are riddled with problems and rooted in a culture of ableism. And as Ferris Bueller reminds us, -isms are not good. To make matters worse, I am not the walrus. and I can’t even pay for rides, much less bum them.

Despite having clearly articulated policies around service animals that mirror federal law, many rideshare service drivers seem to believe the law does not apply to them. Vindicated by their status as independent contractors, they argue, “My car. My rules.” Therein lies the tip of the iceberg surrounding the ableist mindset that the disability community is all too familiar with.

I’d call for a ride, the driver would show, see us both, and inevitably the conversation would begin. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t take your dog.” I’d politely explain federal law, and most would insist they didn’t care and offer a litany of reasons why they’d be cancelling my ride. I’d be left standing there, forced to repeat the process sometimes two or three times before successfully completing my trip. I’d sometimes build an extra 10-15 minutes of “rejection time” into my travel itinerary. I’d subsequently report these incidents and it quickly escalated into a game of he-said/ she-said. Uber or Lyft would apologize, throw a $10.00 credit my way for the inconvenience and move on. No follow up with me, or to my knowledge, the driver. It would be as if the incident never happened.

But it kept happening. And it happened with such regularity that I began making the painful choice to leave Pico at home. To anyone who relies on a service dog daily, this decision is difficult and never our first choice. To be without our service animals is to be without our medical equipment, which gives us our freedom, independence and our sense of self.

And so on the heels of the death of President George H.W. Bush, the very same president who helped push through the Americans with Disabilities Act, (and who himself had a now famous service dog, Sully), I chose to begin gathering footage of the service denials in the hopes that, with the nation’s eyes focused on the life-changing benefits of service dogs, a sea change might occur.

Since I began documenting my experiences in December 2018 to showcase how widespread disability discrimination is among rideshare platforms, I’ve interacted with drivers whose concerns range from a fear that my pup my will shed uncontrollably (and force them to vacuum) to wondering what to do if he were to suddenly defecate or vomit in their vehicle. I remind them that unlike many of the passengers they will pick up in the early morning hours, Pico is trained and has never had an accident of any kind while working. While minimal shedding is likely, (he is, after all, a 70-pound Labrador Retriever) that’s where reality stops and unfounded beliefs take center stage. And whether it stems from ignorance, fear, or a feeling that they are above the law, drivers are not allowed to deny passengers with service dogs.

Uber’s service animal policy reads in part:

Driver-partners have a legal obligation to provide service to riders with service animals.

A driver-partner CANNOT lawfully deny service to riders with service animals because of allergies, religious objections, or a generalized fear of animals.

By virtue of their written Technology Services Agreement with Uber, all driver-partners using the Driver App have been made aware of their legal obligation to provide service to riders with service animals and have agreed to comply with the law. If a driver-partner refuses to transport a rider with a service animal because of the service animal, the driver-partner is in violation of the law and is in breach of their agreement with Uber.

If you read further, Uber spells out consequences of drivers who violate this policy.

If Uber determines that a driver-partner knowingly refused to transport a rider with a service animal because of the service animal, the driver-partner will be permanently prevented from using the Driver App. Uber shall make this determination in its sole discretion following a review of the incident.

If Uber receives plausible complaints on more than one occasion from riders that a particular driver-partner refused to transport a rider with a service animal, that driver-partner will be permanently prevented from using the Driver App, regardless of the justification offered by the driver-partner.

However, when presented with repeated evidence of a denial of service or a degradation of service wherein the driver makes his disdain for us known on video, Uber routinely chooses the path of least resistance. Their customer service consists almost solely of interactions through the app or a never-ending circle of social media-based robotic responses that urge me to correspond via Direct Message (DM) or by utilizing the in-app support. They claim it is an effort to streamline communication. I believe it is a deliberate effort to keep these conversations hidden and out of public view.

Of the nearly dozen documented instances thus far, only one driver has been confirmed banned from the platform. One driver even went so far as to happily accept us for a short trip, only to fraudulently claim to Uber that Pico had damaged his vehicle so severely as to warrant a $150 “cleaning fee” for something that never happened. They subsequently reversed it, but the fact that it was approved at all raises serious process questions. Recently, when I shared this experience with another driver, he openly and nonchalantly remarked that submitting requests like this was a good idea, and had to be dissuaded from doing so.

In all other instances, Uber has declined follow up when asked what steps they’ve taken as a result of being provided clear evidence in direct violation of federal law and their public policies surrounding consequences, which to me highlights the unfortunate reality that in all likelihood no follow-up actions were taken and the drivers in question were given nothing more than a slap on the wrist, if anything.

The week before Christmas, I sat down with my local FOX affiliate, grateful for the chance to broaden awareness and educate the public. Uber doubled down on their non-response response strategy, issuing a statement that sounded like it had been hastily crafted on the back of a napkin by a public relations team that was seemingly caught unaware, despite my very public broadcasting of these incidents. They said they were “looking into it” and reiterated that their drivers knew they were legally required to follow all federal law and written company policies. If I may paraphrase from Jerry Seinfeld for a moment, “Anybody can have a policy. You just don’t know how to enforce the policy, and that’s really the most important part of the policy, the enforcing. In my frustration at their nonchalant response, I rewrote their statement as if it had come from a place of putting the customer first. A fictional statement admittedly, but the one I myself would have written if, as head of Uber public relations, I had been asked for comment.

Since the FOX piece aired, the majority of engagement on this issue has been largely positive. There remains, however, a faction of the general public not yet persuaded that this issue is even an issue at all. They posit myriad theories about personal motive, my (lack of) knowledge surrounding federal law, and better still, my dogged insistence that Uber and Lyft comply with federal law.

But one essential prong of advocacy is awareness and education, so I want to address some of the recurring arguments I’ve heard since this campaign began.

“There are services for people with wheelchairs. Use them.” Putting aside that we abolished “separate but equal” in 1954, paratransit services (like MetroAcess here in Washington, D.C.) require 24-hour advance booking. While that may work for some, it’s not a viable solution offering the same freedoms afforded to the general public using rideshare. It’s unfair to assume people with disabilities can or should be required to schedule their lives in 24-hour increments. We deserve the same freedoms and flexibilities as our able-bodied counterparts.

Additionally, it is important to clarify that in my case, when I use rideshare, I am completely ambulatory and my wheelchair is not with me. It is not part of the logistical equation and has no impact on the driver whatsoever. That said, Uber and Lyft need to provide easy access to wheelchair accessible vehicles rather than outsourcing to third party vendors completely removed from the on-demand culture on which these companies were built.

“Let Uber/Lyft know you’re traveling with a service dog.” It’s a nice idea in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work. Calling ahead simply invites discrimination without any way to confront it. Particularly on Lyft where users can create a public bio for drivers to see, I tested a theory. In my bio, which includes a picture of me and Pico, I wrote a few lines and self-identify as a service dog handler. Much of the time my rides get cancelled within minutes. The more dubious drivers will see I am traveling with a service dog, drive near my pickup location and sit idle, run out the five minute wait clock, ignore my attempts to call and finally claim I never showed. In the end, I’m left without a ride and stuck with a cancelation fee to reverse and the faint hope that the incident won’t repeat itself when I call a subsequent ride. Think about it this way: Would you call ahead to let your driver know of your ethnicity or sexual orientation in case they had a problem with it? No, because it’s discrimination, and this is no different.

“Some drivers agreed to take you in the end. What’s the big deal?” Yup. In some cases drivers reluctantly agreed to accommodate us following a confrontation or a promise to report them. By then, there had already been a degradation of service. They made their disdain for me and Pico clearly known and that makes for one awkward ride. According to Uber, if after such a confrontation I choose to not complete the ride, they classify that as a denial.

“Use Taxis.” It’s true that taxis are regulated and compliance rates are higher as a result. However, taxis also mean longer wait times, higher fares, no GPS tracking of your vehicle and no guarantee they’ll show. Additionally, there’s also the possibility I’ll need to carry cash if I can’t request a credit card-equipped cab. As someone with fine motor challenges, I try to handle cash as infrequently as possible.

“It’s about money and fame.” This one makes me laugh so hard I have to be extra careful to not fall out of my chair. This is an argument made by able-bodied people who, due to their privilege, forget that the world is made with them in mind. People with disabilities are often thought to be complaining or making a big deal over small issues, when we are simply fighting for the rights the abled community already has and thus takes for granted. Our goal is not to complain. Our goal is to advocate for change and put ourselves out of business, as it were. That starts with raising awareness and hoping we reach critical mass so that the people in positions of power will listen and act accordingly.

People with disabilities constitute 20 percent of the world’s population. And still, rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft behave as though we are a minority undeserving of them instead of the customers keeping them afloat. My hope is that by continuing to document and share my experiences positive change will come in 2019 and we will all be treated with the respect and dignity we deserve.

Tales from a service dog: what I want the public to know about me and my handler

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The following is a public service announcement brought to you by Pico Honick, service dog.

It’s hard to believe, but this past February marked four years from the day Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) matched me with my handler. To some, he’s Ryan the Professional. To others, he’s Ryan the Goofball. To me? He’ll always be “The Tyrant with the Leash.” I say this with love, of course, and I’ve earned the right to say it. I’ve been his right hand—and sometimes his left—for almost half a decade, and we’ve been through a lot together. In fact, every day is an adventure, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to school you on what life’s like as a service dog, and share some of the basic stuff that’s important for you, as a member of the general public, to know.

1). I’m highly trained. Do you know how hard it was to land this gig? I spent two years training before getting matched with Ryan. 18 months of that was with my volunteer puppy raiser, (Hi, Amy!), and I spent another six months at the Northeast region of CCI where I mastered over 40 commands. I survived a rigorous training schedule and am one of the mere 20 percent of pups who have successfully proved they have the skills, temperament, and stamina to do the tough things this job requires. I am, in short, the cream of the crop.

This is one of the many reasons it really sticks in my paw when I see you slap a vest you bought online on your beloved pet. Just because a guy’s wearing a Michael Jordan jersey doesn’t make him Michael Jordan. It makes him, at best, an admirer, and, at worst, an imposter. And if he happens to trash the place or behave like a foolio in public? Guess who suffers the consequences? You may get hit with a fine depending on the state you’re in, but more importantly, the next time I’m out, I’m the one who will be stared at and left to fight the stigma associated with service dogs because of what your untrained pooch did. You’re tearing me apart, dumb dumb. Note to self Contact Weird Al for collaborative effort parodying Bon Jovi with “You Give Service Dogs a Bad Name.” 

2). I need to focus. Do I come into your office and talk your ear off about my weekend plans, or show you dog videos on Youtube while you’re trying to write? Of course not. That’s because I’ve got a job to do, and I take my work seriously. So please, for the love of dogma, let me work. Even if it looks like I’m not working, I am. Don’t pet me, play with me, make kissy noises at me, or do anything that prevents me from focusing on the one thing I’ve been trained to do: help my handler. I’ve got discipline, and you taunting me with anything your pet dog may enjoy could throw me off my game. I’ve got patches on both sides of my vest and a bright neon yellow leash wrap that screams “DO NOT PET.” I’ve also got a note tucked under my collar that says “help me” but that’s a story for another time….

3). I’m medically necessary. Let’s just tell it like it is: I’ve seen this dude on his own. It’s not pretty. He’s stumbling, falling over, constantly exhausted, and can barely remember what day it is. That’s why I’m around. I make life a little easier and ease the stress on his body, too. I can open doors, drawers, retrieve and deliver items, and, when his Amazon Alexa“malfunctions,” I can even turn light switches on and off with ease. I’m here to help 24/7/365, but I can only do that if I’m with Ryan. That’s why federal law ensures anywhere he goes, I’m his guaranteed plus one. Other assistance dogs can try, but like The Lord of the Rings, I’m the one dog to rule them all. Emotional support dogs (ESAs), therapy dogs, and even puppies in training aren’t guaranteed access like me. We’re a package deal, period. That means restaurants, clubs, sports arenas, hospitals, hotels, even ride share platforms like Lyft and Uber must accommodate us. It’s taken some time, but both of these companies have finally cracked down on drivers who refuse to pick us up for fear I’ll “mess up their ride.” I never understood this one. I spent two years in training, unlike the drunk guy you picked up at 2 a.m. last Friday who yakked all over your back seat. It’s a sweet gig, but getting businesses to follow the law isn’t always easy. I’m looking at you, Stonewall.

While we’re on the subject, “medically necessary” also means that if for some reason I get knocked on my tail, medically or otherwise, Ryan and I are both out of commission. He’s my lifeline as much as I’m his.

4). I don’t need documentation. That’s right sports fans. I worked my tail off to get to the big dance and I don’t need credentials to go anywhere. Heck, I don’t even need a uniform according to federal law. Shirts or skins, it doesn’t matter. Most of the time, I only wear my vest to make it blatantly obvious that I’m working. Plus, I’m a dog. If I walk around “naked” all the time people get handsy. (Remember the whole “do not pet” thing?) In addition, there’s absolutely nothing my handler needs to carry around with him, either. We’re U.S. citizens, and anywhere Ryan can go, I’m allowed to go with him. End of story. The only two things you need to know are 1). I’m a service dog required for Ryan’s disability and 2). I’m trained to perform certain necessary tasks. Beyond that, it’s not our job to prove anything to you. If you want a demo, I’ll invite you to my next meet and greet with fans. For $20, I’ll even throw in a selfie.

5). Questions are fine, most of the time. I get it. To you, I’m a rock star, and, in a way, I am. When I have doggy dreams, I’m in a room full of people chanting my name. “Pico! Pico! Pico!” I am really good at my job, and I’ve proven it day-in and day-out for years. And, while I appreciate being recognized (it happens), the more likely scenario is a well-meaning onslaught of questions Ryan has to answer over and over again. So, ladies and gentlemen, here are my stats. Soak ‘em in:

Name: Pico (aliases: Pico Man, Pico D. Pup, Pico De Gallo, His Royal Peekness, and The Prime Minister)

Breed:  Purebred Labrador Retriever

Age: 6

Current Position: Service Dog, 2014 - Present

Special Skills:  Opening and closing doors and drawers; turning light switches on and off; retrieving and delivering items; reducing anxiety; offering non-stop cuddles and kisses; acting as a casual conversation-starter.

Relationship Status:  Ryan is my one and only handler, but I’m available for play on nights and weekends.

What I’m looking for: A place to lay down until Ryan needs me. Toys that squeak, tennis balls, and…where did I put that Nylabone? 

I really should get this stuff printed on a baseball card.

In all seriousness, if you’ve got questions, please feel free to ask. We’re both here to educate and inform. But let us at least have our coffee first. Deal?

6). I get plenty of play time.  The CCI slogan may be #giveadogajob, but just like most employees, I get vacation and good health insurance, too. In fact, I would argue my benefits are likely better than yours. I work hard, and I play harder. I’ll work a pretty rigorous day (with lots of naps), and then I get to come home and unwind, just like you. Sometimes that involves chewing on a bone, playing fetch, snuggling on the couch while watching TV, or just passing the heck out on my dog bed while enjoying the wonderful world of doggy dreams. (The latest one involved Ryan and I switching places, and I was his handler. Boy, was that grand!)

Truthfully, I get plenty of freedom, and if I need my space, I know where to get it. I’m spoiled rotten and content as could be. I couldn’t ask for anything more. OK, maybe a second helping of dinner … damn is that stuff good. 

7). We know what we’re doing. You want me to get on a crowded elevator? No, thanks. Both Ryan and I need plenty of space to do our thing. You see an open space for an able-bodied person walking upright. I see 10 people crammed into a tight space, including three kids under the age of five, a stressed out mom with a double wide stroller, the businessman in a dark suit (who I may inadvertently shed on in such tight quarters), and the guy with headphones on who, because he’s engrossed in his music, probably isn’t paying attention to what’s going on around him. 

The two of us working together is like a well-choreographed dance routine. We’ve rehearsed it a thousand times and know exactly how it goes. We know just how much space we need, and when and where it’s safe for us to operate. You may think a given scenario is safe, but you don’t know us like we do. I appreciate the sentiment, but I’ll stick to whatever plan Ryan has in store for us.

8). Please be mindful of what you say to us. Before you tell me you wish you could bring your dog with you to the office or everywhere you go—and talk about how “cool” that would be, remember that I am medically necessary. Yes, Ryan and I have fun every day, and I truly enjoy my work, but I’m around to help Ryan with his day-to-day life. He has a medically diagnosed disability that affects his daily life and he and I are protected by the ADA. So the next time you see us and think how much you wish Fido was by your side all day, ask yourself: would you really be willing to switch places and live your life as a person with a disability for the privilege of having a service dog? 

Well, that’s it. Hopefully you understand a little more about my job, why it’s important, and how I work to help Ryan every day. Each working team is unique and how they choose to work together or approach the scenarios outlined above may be different, too. Regardless, the relationship between a service dog and their handler is a sacred bond. My hope is that after reading this, the next time you encounter us or any one of the roughly 387,000 working service dog teams across the country, you’ll have a deeper appreciation and understanding for them.

If you’re still curious or have additional questions, you can ask Ryan. I’d answer them myself, but I think it’s time for a nap.

PETCO discriminated against me and my service dog on the ADA's 25th anniversary

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The headline almost reads like an SNL parody or a headline from the Onion. “PETCO Discriminates Against Patron With Service Dog on ADA 25th Anniversary: Company Cites Policy” However bizarre, it’s real. On the heels of celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA, I find my experience this weekend jaw dropping, offensive and particularly timely.

So what happened?

This past Saturday I visited a local PETCO in Washington D.C. (Store 782) as I have done every month for the past two years to groom my beloved service dog. Upon arriving I was made aware of a newly established policy prohibiting pet owners from accompanying their pets into the grooming area. Having been a loyal patron for years, and previously accompanying him without issue, I reminded them that Pico was in fact a service dog and not a pet. Further, I reiterated that by law I am required to maintain control of my dog at all times while in public either by leash, or in some instances other voice commands and that attempting to separate us was a violation of the American’s with Disabilities Act.

According to ADA.gov

Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

Further the law states

A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

After reiterating the above, I was advised that the crackdown on corporate policy was firm. I was told that if I wanted my dog groomed, I would have to relinquish him to a groomer, and wait in an adjacent room. I would have no ability to control my dog’s behavior as required by federal law.

When no agreement could be reached between myself and the interim manager (who only identified himself by his first name), he became increasingly hostile. He didn’t need any educating on the ADA, he told me. He had previously worked on the Hill, and with Congress and was thereby, all-knowing. He followed by encouraging me to file a complaint with PETCO and even advised me to pursue legal action if I felt that was appropriate. The policy however, would stand.

Steadfast in my conviction, I called the customer relations number he had given me moments ago. Surely this would lead to a resolution.

I spoke briefly to a customer service representative and briefed her on the circumstances. She asked to speak with the interim manager and I stood by listening to him explain how the shift in policy occurred recently as the result of the district manager reprimanding an employee for not previously enforcing it. When they completed the brief exchange, I came back on the line only to hear the representative cite the policy in place, as if I hadn’t been standing there to hear the exchange moments before. “Oh, it’s policy?” I thought to myself. “That clears everything up.” Not to worry. I’m told that the issue is being “escalated” and that the district manager will follow up with me on my complaint. Never mind that it was the district manager who was enforcing the discriminatory corporate policy.

At this point I opted to leave the store and continue my conversations outside hopeful that I would reach a customer service representative who wasn’t so tone deaf as to rely on reciting the script used by the previous representative.

Nearly 90 minutes and three representatives later, I’ve gotten absolutely nowhere. I’m promised a follow up by the district manager once again. Nobody has uttered anything close to an apology for how I’ve been treated.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, I kicked into activism mode. I stood outside the store taking the opportunity to educate would-be patrons before entering that PETCO did not support the ADA or patrons with disabilities. I engaged a few and took solace in having done something.

The interim manager upon discovering my activism was less than pleased and went as far as to call my response “vindictive.” Then, adding insult to injury he offered to take my dog in the back in the grooming area “as long as I was out there.” Once again proving he missed the point entirely.

“Has your policy suddenly changed?” I inquired.

“No,” he says.

“Then you’re still violating federal law.”

“I can offer you a bag of dog food for your trouble,” he says without a hint of irony.

“Thanks, but no.” I said.

He went a good distance to smoke a cigarette and that was the last I saw of him before heading home, now having spent three hours at PETCO trying to get my dog groomed.

Having felt like I’d officially entered the Twilight Zone, I reached out to PETCO on Twitter.

Their response came fast. “Can you direct message (DM) more details so we may get in touch with you?”

My excitement and hopes that I had possibly reached a compassionate (if not PR-savvy individual) were quickly dashed. Upon sending a DM with my information, their reply was equally daft. “The district manager has been made aware of the issue and will be the one to work with you.” When I point out that nobody has apologized in the slightest for my experience, they follow up with another direct message that read, “We apologize.” No doubt that had to be vetted by their lawyers.

So slightly more than 48 hours have passed and PETCO has taken no visible action to reverse this discriminatory policy or hold anyone accountable. PETCO, their corporate team, and their public relations team are bewilderingly and to their own detriment standing behind their discriminatory practices.

With recent celebrations nationwide about all the progress made thanks to the ADA, this past weekend reminds us all that there is still much work to be done.

Sign my petition and tell PETCO to stop discriminating against people with disabilities.

How Brian Williams can reclaim the anchor chair—if he wants it.

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Tuning in to “NBC Nightly News” on Wednesday, it was clear that NBC execs were moving swiftly ahead for a post-Brian Williams era. Noticeably absent from the opening title sequence was the name of the embattled anchor and former managing editor who was suspended Tuesday by NBC brass for six months without pay for embellishments he made while reporting on the Iraq War in 2003.

Once the most trusted name in network news, Williams’ credibility has taken a nosedivesince admitting last week he “misremembered” the events told on the January 30 broadcast about being aboard an aircraft hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, (RPG) a story he’d repeated countless times. A tribute by NBC prior to Williams’ truth-challenged broadcast celebrating his tenure with the network has suddenly disappeared from the airwaves, instead replaced by an internal investigation that has uncovered other instances of Williams’ exaggerations.

Watching Williams‘ downfall over the past two weeks has elicited a series of responses. While the debate over Williams’ future intensifies, some have come to his defense, including TimeHuffington Post, and famed warlock Charlie Sheen, who called the whole thing nothing but a witch hunt. Still others remain convinced that having eroded the public’s trust virtually overnight, his suspension is merely the beginning of an exit strategy and a return to the anchor chair later this summer is near impossible. In addition to spawning a series of memes, and inspiring the #BrianWilliamsMisremembers hashtag on Twitter, the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians—the Akron RubberDucks—announced plans to host a Brian Williams “Pants on Fire” night in April.

Indeed Williams’ actions have forced NBC into crisis mode as they scramble to limit the damage done by their once star anchor. After 10 years at the helm of “NBC Nightly News,” weekend anchor Lester Holt is currently assuming Williams’ duties and may be doing more than simply keeping the seat warm if he can prove to be a ratings success.

With six months of free time and $5 million less in his pocket, Williams has a lot of time to think about how he can begin to win back the trust of the American people, only 34% of whom find him credible. A recent survey by The Marketing Arm shows Kate Middleton has more credibility among Americans than Williams at the moment. He may very well be fighting for his career and reputation once the suspension concludes, but if the beleaguered newsman intends on returning to life behind the anchor desk, the seeds must be planted now.

Here are three things Williams should do during his time off if he wants to reclaim the anchor chair this summer:

1). Apologize to the public: Following the outcry after Williams first reported to have been in an aircraft hit by an RPG, Williams went on air and issued a half-baked apologythat was clearly written and vetted by NBC in an attempt to save himself and the network further embarrassment. The challenge with carefully crafted apologies such as this is that they fail to come off as sincere. When Williams returns, his effort to rebuild public trust with the nearly 9 million people who invited him into their homes on a nightly basis must begin with a sincere apology for his missteps without attempting justify his actions. Williams simply must fall on his sword. A heartfelt apology with no PR buzzwords to set off the alarms will go a long way.

2). Volunteer with veterans: Williams got himself in trouble by exaggerating his involvement covering the Iraq War, and quite possibly lied about his involvement with SEAL Team Six. He needs to show contrition to the men and women of our military whose sacrifice he has trivialized by making himself unnecessarily part of the story for the benefit of ratings and sensationalism. His apology should be done with no fanfare and completely under the radar; no camera crew looking for a photo op or b-roll. This isn’t about Williams at all. If Williams wants to talk about the experience down the line once he’s reestablished himself, he should feel free to do so. He’ll find that the story will get told in much the same way this most recent one exposed him, by the people who were there who want the record reflected accurately.

3). Stay out of the public eye: Those close to Williams describe him as being wrought with remorse since the controversy broke, and he may be. But he should not find it necessary to unburden his soul like so many disgraced public figures before him by committing to a round of public appearances, press conferences and talk shows confessing his deepest personal and/or journalistic sins. As challenging as it may be for someone who has spent his career talking (and entertaining) for a living, he’s going to have to lay low for a while and assess the damage. Then he can decide what direction he wants his career to go. Maybe he’d prefer taking over “The Daily Show” from a departing Jon Stewart, where news and entertainment blend together.

If NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke truly believes Williams deserves another chance and the network is pulling for him, then the beginning of rehabilitating his public image starts now.

THE NON SPORTS FANS SURVIVAL GUIDE TO SUPER BOWL XLIX

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We’re just a little more than 24 hours from Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona.

That means it’s time for a public service announcement about surviving the biggest game of the year: the annual Non Sports Fans Survival Guide to the Super Bowl. As Lewis Black reminds us, it’s important for man to have a ritual.

Let’s just get this out of the way. You’re welcome.

Roger Goodell’s promise to “thoroughly and objectively” investigate Deflategate or the various takes on Marshawn Lynch’s behavior antics on NFL Media Day—including Michael Weinreb of Rolling Stone comparing him to Edward Snowden—have dominated the conversation so heavily in the past week that the game itself seems almost like an afterthought, unless you’re from either New England or Seattle. Then the mayhem is certainly inescapable. Seattle is so ecstatic to be in the Super Bowl again that the city is planning a celebration regardless of the outcome.

Much has been made about the Seahawks vs. Patriots matchup, but the fun facts don’t stop there. Super Bowl Sunday is also the only day of the year where commercials matter more to some than the game itself despite the fact that, for the last several years, most of the ads begin circulating online for days ahead of kickoff generating a lot of pregame conversation–both positive and negative.

Go Daddy’s controversial “Journey Home” spot didn’t even live long enough to see game day following a social media backlash panning the ad for its insensitivity. On the flip side, the “Like a Girl” campaign from Always—which debuted to worldwide acclaim last summer—is set for a huge boost in viewership Sunday when the 60-second promo encouraging female empowerment reaches its largest audience yet.

Some argue with the ever-increasing trend of ads being teased online that the magic of Super Bowl ads is gone. I disagree. They start a conversation and ultimately most brands benefit from the added exposure. Historically, there have remained a few that manage to sneak in under the radar. So, despite the self-inflicted spoiler alerts, fans never quite know what to expect.

The fact is, only on Super Bowl Sunday is talking during commercials just as likely to get you ostracized as talking during game time. That’s how important this day is to our country. The USDA ranks the Super Bowl as the second highest day for food consumption nationwide, behind Thanksgiving. That fun fact explains renewed pleas like this one to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday. However, if we haven’t yet persuaded the federal government to declare Election Day a holiday to encourage voting, (something that only occurs once every four years), then the idea of a Super Bowl Monday is about as long a shot as Mitt Romney running for president. We can dream, can’t we?

Every Super Bowl party also has its share of individuals, be they wives, girlfriends, or non sports savvy friends, who are there likely against their will. But since Super Bowl Sunday might as well be declared a national holiday, they didn’t want to be alone. If you find yourself in this group, fear not. Diane Turbyfill over at the Gaston Gazette has written Tips on How to Fit in on Super Bowl Sunday to help you, and if you are at all politically inclined, Jason Johnson of NBC News has written a similar piece titled “Top 10 Reasons Politicos Should Watch Super Bowl XLIX”

As helpful as these lists are, they still create a deep divide between the care and the care-nots, requiring the care-nots to in fact, care. They must study the above, learning names, definitions, and mundane details. Details that make them appear in the know. Details they will soon forget. Helpful? Sure, but what of those care-nots who don’t want to put in that much work? The solution is simple, and in fact, can be applied to every sports game, every day of the year. All you must do, and I have taught this to many, is remember four essential phrases and utter them enthusiastically at random intervals during the game. These phrases are:

1). “Did you see that?”

2). “Are you kidding me?”

3). “That’s such a b******t call!”

4). “Oh, c’mon! Whose side are you on, ref?”

Using these phrases you will fit in with any crowd for any sport, no pregame studying of players and facts required. Best of all this timesaving system is foolproof and the result of your effort will be noticed immediately. You may even make a new friend. Yes, the four phrase system is that easy. Usually sold for three easy payments of $19.95+S&H, today, it’s yours free. Call now and receive a fifth phrase that will guarantee your invitation to next year’s party, (while supplies last).

And finally, I predict Sunday’s winner, The Seattle Seahawks, by a final score of 23-20. Here’s to hoping the predictive powers of Madden 25 and the annual Super Bowl simulation are proven wrong. Besides, a Seattle win is better for the stock market.

THREE COMMUNICATION LESSONS FROM THE 2015 STATE OF THE UNION

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Every year policy wonks around the country gleefully tune in to the State of the Union. It’s a big deal in Washington—as it should be. Our president, before congress, lays out his bold vision for the country. If the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is nerd prom, the State of the Union is the Super Bowl, and just like the Super Bowl, its ending is sure to disappoint at least half the country.

That might explain why over 50% of Americans said they planned to skip the speech entirely, with 45% saying it’s because the timing of the speech, 9:00 p.m., interfered with their preferred TV programing. Clearly the President of the United States is no match for “New Girl.”  

So if you’re tasked with writing a speech, what can you do to make it a compelling draw and maximize its impact on your audience? Here are three communication messaging takeaways from this year’s State of the Union.

Control the message: Gone are the days of passive media consumption. The name of the game in today’s social media landscape is engagement, and nowhere is that more evident than with the State of the Union. Throughout the night we’re watching it on TV, while simultaneously tweeting, and texting. If you’re following along reading the prepared remarks, therein lies another potential distraction. As one of my colleagues said to me Wednesday morning, “With four screens going, I admit I didn’t really get to hear the president.” Realizing the uphill battle for eyeballs Tuesday night, the White House was smart. In addition to releasing the prepared remarks ahead of time, (something they’ve done with increased frequency in recent years) they were live tweeting as well. They also heavily promoted a live enhanced version of the State of the Union on their website, including a interactive river of content designed to showcase administration policy. With information flying at incredible speed, their strategy was simple: make it easy for people to interact with and share prepackaged content. Well, it worked. The White House enhanced stream drew 1.2 million views, Twitter saw a total of 1,575,475 tweets and retweets using #SOTU on the day of the speech – about 25% growth relative to 2014—and many were fuelled by the president’s official Twitter feedas well as the White House, helping public messaging stay on course. In addition, if you chose to watch the White House YouTube stream, the president’s remarks were punctuated with statistics and visuals that would have otherwise been absent from the speech. The White House also followed the presidential address with its own Q&A session rather than show the Republican response, or rather, responses undercutting their message.

Going off script can be a good thing: Most communication is best done in a methodical, planned, and rehearsed fashion, especially when media is involved. There’s just too much at stake usually to shoot from the hip and not expect some sort of backfire. However, rules are meant to be broken, and when the Leader of the Free World wants to go off script, you let him. He did so twice on Tuesday night. First, when Republicans refused to applaud the economic recovery, Obama reminded them that the recovery was in fact, good news. The second time came during a rebuttal to Republicans who were all too happy to celebrate the looming end of Obama’s presidency. The eight words spoken off script ignited Twitter and quickly became the most talked about moment of the evening. Going off script can be tricky, but when done right can humanize a speaker and help drive a point home in a way that prepared remarks can’t.

Keep it short: The official runtime for the 2015 State of the Union was just under an hour, which is not historically succinct, unless we’re comparing Obama to President Clinton who’s credited with the longest speech on record—clocking in at nearly 90 minutes—in his final address to the nation in 2000. In 2015 it’s increasingly difficult to hold the attention of many for long periods. People’s attention spans are forever shrinking thanks to social media which by design encourages bite-sized communication. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was spotted taking a nap roughly 20 minutes into the president’s remarks. The shorter and more digestible you can make your communication, the better. 

Those are some of my top communication takeaways from the 2015 State of the Union. What were some of yours?

FOR BRANDS, ONLINE ENGAGEMENT IS ONLY HALF THE BATTLE.

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Greg Weiss, Vice President of Social Media at MasterCard, gained a lot of attention yesterday when he said a brand that replies to his tweets makes more of an impact on him than years of advertising ever could. Coming from someone in Weiss’s position, the declaration immediately generated a ton of conversation online about the value of online engagement and its true impact on consumers and brands alike. 

So what exactly is the ROI of social media and consumer engagement? As Gary Vaynerchuck has famously said, “What’s the ROI of your mother?” You can’t quantify it, but you know its influence is there.

Engagement may be helpful to your brand (even necessary) but what matters is the motive behind it. Anyone can talk. More important is what you say, and why, and that’s true both online and off.

There certainly exists no shortage of brands continually shooting themselves in the foot by saying dumb things on social media in the name of engagement. Within the past 72 hours alone, we’ve witnessed Pat Sajack deny the reality of global warming and the Hooters franchise “joking” about rape. Both now find themselves in need of serious damage control.

In my own experience, I can think of two brands whose approach to online engagement differs so dramatically, their motives so starkly contrasted, that while one of them I applaud, the other is quickly climbing the ranks and on its way to becoming one I can only talk about with frustration and anger.

The Good: OtterBox 

As the tagline denotes, “We’ve got technology covered.” They certainly do. Every iPhone I’ve ever had is instantly outfitted with an OtterBox case. I believe, and have had such positive experiences with them and their product, that it’s not uncommon for me to hold off a device upgrade until they’ve developed the protection for it. Often this might mean waiting a month or two depending on the case, but it’s worth it.

How did I become such a loyalist? Simple. OtterBox time and time again stands by their product.

For the first few years, I went with the ruggedly stylish Defender series never experiencing any issues. With the introduction of their most recent line of waterproof cases for the iPhone 5S, I took the plunge and opted for their Preserver series. 

Though the case renders the iPhone virtually indestructible, and offers functionality exceeding that of its competition by far, the case is so precisely designed that the slightest bump can seemingly knock something out of alignment and soon having a conversation with clear audio becomes near impossible. I reached out to OtterBox on Twitter, and each time they were quick to respond. Beyond the standard, “Were sorry to hear that,” they wanted to get to the bottom of the problem and help solve it. Within a few minutes I received a call from their customer service department to help remedy the issue, and just as quickly, a replacement case shipped out, no questions asked. The issue repeated itself with the second case too, (so clearly there’s a design flaw) but the team at OtterBox remained truly focused on customer service, using social media as a true form of online engagement.

The Bad: Uber. 

To say Uber has given me a headache would be the world’s biggest understatement. After over a year of using Uber, my relationship with them is beginning to mirror that of one with a dysfunctional ex. If I can borrow a description from comedian Aaron Karo, the first six months were bliss, the next three were a little rocky, and the last three have been spent trying not to punch them in the face. Despite leading the evolution in how the world moves, and making cities more accessible, if you’ve got a disability, that’s of little comfort.

How did it get this bad?

Earlier this year, I was partnered with my first service dog, an awesome two-year-old Labrador Retriever. Since then, my experience with Uber has become so increasingly frustrating I wonder if my continued relationship with them is some form of Stockholm Syndrome. 

Not only has it become increasingly common for drivers to adamantly insist they “can’t” accept me as a client due to my service dog, many drivers, as misinformed as they are, claim they are under no obligation to abide by federal law because they use their own vehicles. Nearly 25% of my requested rides have been cancelled by the driver upon arrival simply because they do not want to obey or acknowledge the existence of the ADA. One driver even went as far as to say he would not allow me in his vehicle unless my dog were caged. More and more I am forced to make multiple requests through the Uber app before I am able to complete a trip without incident.

And what, you may be asking is Uber’s response to all this? “This isn’t right and we’re working with our partners to make it better.”

From a social media perspective, Uber, and in particular the DC office, is extremely responsive and engaging on Twitter. With each incident brought to their attention, they promise swift action and follow up, yet, little ever changes. To the Twitterverse it’s outstanding service with a smile, and it registers as good PR. The reality is, time and time again I am left with nothing more than empty promises to do better from a company whose accountability is so lacking they only communicate through social media, e-mail and their respective iPhone and Android apps. All my repeated requests to meet with them in person, or talk in depth with someone with the hope of starting a much needed dialogue on these issues go unheeded, as did my letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. All of this “engagement” amounts to nothing without the action to support it.

So while the debate over the value of social media engagement rages on, this much remains abundantly clear: talk is cheap, actions speak louder than words, and engagement is only as valuable as the motive behind it.

THREE LESSONS BILL COSBY’S LATEST COMEDY SPECIAL TAUGHT ME ABOUT PR

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Nearly 30 years since his last televised special, comedy legend Bill Cosby returned to Comedy Central Saturday, November 23, in his latest offering appropriately titled “Far From Finished." At 76, Cosby is perhaps at his best with an arsenal of stories about marriage, changing relationship dynamics, and growing older. With an audience seemingly hanging on his every word, watching a master storyteller at work for 90 minutes was, I realized, not only a great dissection of comedic approach, but a chance to reinforce some great PR lessons as well.

Here are my top three takeaways from watching Dr. Cosby at work:

1). Authenticity Wins Every time

In addition to his genius crafting a funny narrative, Cosby is also well known for keeping his act clean at all times. That’s who he is, and fans everywhere know what they can expect. His personal stories are funny in part because they are unique to him, but he also touches on their universality.

Witnessing first-hand the power of narrative and its potential to grip an audience while tending bar in New York, Cosby had no doubt in his mind that was the style he wanted to emulate.

“I remember thinking, ‘That’s the style I want to go with my writing. Identification and a style that I care,’” recalled Cosby in the post-concert interview accompanying the November 25 DVD release.

“The [comics] who really care know that it’s from the mind down to these fingertips. From that point on, it’s your style,” Cosby continued.

The public can smell inauthenticity a mile away. To succeed, brands must be authentic, know their voice and use it to their advantage. A serious brand suddenly trying to interject humor at the wrong moment can be perceived as disingenuous. On the flip side, brands who have established themselves as risk takers, often pushing boundaries and engaging humorously with the public on an ongoing basis can pay off big time. I’m looking at you, Zappos.

2). Plans Change, Be Flexible

One of the recurring themes that cropped up in the post-concert interview was Cosby’s reliance on his intuition and how trust in both himself and the audience are more often than not the driving force behind his performances.

“When I walk out, there’s not even a rush. I walk out and I look at them, and I hear them, and I reach down and I pick up the mic, put it over the ear, put the [microphone receiver] in my pocket, and I have from that point, no idea what I am going to say. My plan is that I don’t have a plan.

“I don’t try anything out. If it’s funny to me, I’m going to give it to you,” Cosby said of his work style.

Remembering back to “Himself”, Cosby confessed that one of his most beloved routines, “Chocolate Cake For Breakfast” was largely ad-libbed as a result of his trust and connection with the audience at the time that gave him the freedom to let go and have fun.

Likewise, and especially in PR, crises happen and plans will get scrapped. Surprises and the unexpected are part of what PR is about. Seize those opportunities and challenges as they come. Be open to your approach and appreciate fluidity. Understand that the best responses often come from quick adaption and the ability to think on your feet. Remember when the power went out at halftime of the 2012 Superbowl? The marketing team at Oreo was all over it reminding you with a timely PSA that, “You can still dunk in the dark.”

3). Tell A Great Story 

Cosby is a revered storyteller. That is his gift. He takes audiences with him through every tale he tells and despite the diversity of the crowd, they’re all with him as if it’s their own, regardless of their personal connection or understanding. The degrees vary, but everyone finds a way to identify with him. The connection to story is almost automatic. Human nature. Great stories give the opportunity for the listener to create their own unique visuals which instantly lead to better recall. Our memories love visual cues.

On more than one occasion, Cosby said, he was pressured to speed up his delivery. “They said, ‘If you didn’t get them in the first 30 seconds, you will lose them,’” he recounted. What he learned was it wasn’t so much about grabbing their attention, but building trust, and holding it. Getting the audience to go along with him believing the payoff would be worth the wait.

This week, Adweek unveiled its annual list of the most viral ad campaigns. What characteristic did many of the top honorees share? They forewent the traditional length of most ad spots, 15-30 seconds and instead focused on a compelling narrative to grab the public’s attention. It’s no secret that content is shifting away from television and moving toward online and mobile, but as the platform changes, so do the rules. Campaigns that live online are not bound by older decrees where ad length and airtime are financially linked. Online presents brands with an amazing opportunity to tell compelling stories about themselves and their product without breaking the bank for airtime. This year’s best story? Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign—a three minute ad—was shared over 4 million times.

Thank you, Bill Cosby for decades of laughs. You’ve made me not only a better comic but a stronger communicator. I owe you a debt of gratitude for inspiring my personal credo: life is all about chasing (and later telling) the great story.

FIVE WAYS EMPLOYERS CAN SUPPORT VETERANS RETURNING TO THE WORKFORCE

No matter the discipline, skill or specialty, all employers look for a handful of ideal traits in new hires: loyalty and passion, the ability to think quickly and adapt in fast-paced environments, and the ability to work collaboratively with teams.

These are characteristics of our nation’s veterans; yet, veterans’ unemployment statistics are only slightly ahead of the national unemployment rate of 7.6%. According to the latest statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Post-9/11 Veterans has declined slightly in recent months to 7.2%.   

Despite a strong work ethic and advanced skills and training, it is widely understood that veterans face an uphill battle when reentering the American workforce. Informed employers anticipate these challenges and help smooth the transition from military culture to the workplace.  As veterans shift from a highly-structured, hierarchical organization where routine, chain of command and discipline is vital to success, a more relaxed civilian culture can be disorienting and confusing. 

Here are five things employers can do to make the transition more successful:

  1. Provide leadership/managerial training around ways to leverage veterans’ specific skillsets and knowledge to the benefit of the team/company.

  2. Proactively identify specific ways veterans’ culture and skillsets can be integrated into existing company culture, and create opportunities for contribution and inclusion from leadership.

  3. Create a Veterans Affairs POC within the company that can provide access to different veteran agencies in the area.

  4. Create veterans affinity groups across offices and regions to open dialogue and share experiences.

  5. Provide a “buddy” system with informed co-workers for organizational transition mentoring and support.

Hiring veterans can, and should be, a priority for employers. Many top firms are already leading the charge. Amazon, for example, boasts 25% of its workforce as veterans. Additionally, AT&T recently launched two unique programs aimed at helping servicemen and women use their skills in the workforce. Not only does hiring veterans offer a win-win on the business side, in the form of tax breaks and employer incentives, it sends a clear positive message that their sacrifice is not forgotten.

The companies who embrace and assist veterans returning to civilian life will increasingly find themselves on the side of positive public perception for doing the right thing. And, more importantly, employers can make Veterans’ Day sentiments a day-to-day reality for our returning service men and women.  

By: Ryan Honick, Fellow, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Washington D.C. 

This blog post first appeared on Hill+Knowlton Strategies

THE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN SURVIVAL GUIDE: WHY LAUGHTER ALWAYS WINS

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If you’re not laughing at the government shutdown, you’re doing it wrong.

Yes. I said it.

Some of you will no doubt disagree with me outright that with our federal government shut down and costing our economy an estimated $300 million per day, now is not the time for jokes. Except that humor heals. Humor should overtake baseball as our national pastime. To paraphrase Chandler Bing, funny is all we have. Laughter is the best medicine. Unless of course, you die of laughter. Then, as Joey Tribbiani might remind us, the point is moo.

I digress.

Let’s get real for a second. There’s absolutely nothing funny about 800,000 federal employees being furloughed as a result of the government shutdown. As President Obama pointed out, this shutdown did not need to happen, but it did. Why? Because Republicans suck at math and seem to lack a basic understanding of how laws work. Despite not having the votes in the Senate to do so, they tied their cooperation on passing a Continuing Resolution to the defunding of Obamacare which was a non-starter for Democrats, setting the stage for our nation’s first government shutdown since 1995. If I may borrow a segment from my favorite podcast, Too Beautiful To Live, it’s time to “Shut It Down, America.”

Once the clock struck midnight, my Twitter feed became a barrage of all things shutdown related. “BREAKING: The United States of America” read a tweet from political columnist Sarah Kenzior. The comedy floodgates were open. Comedians (both established and aspiring) began basking in the glistening comedic sun political brinksmanship bestowed upon us—and that—is something that I can enthusiastically get behind.

Ahead of the House of Cards mockup that became the front page of Tuesday morning’s New York Daily News, the fictional Twitter account of Francis J. Underwood reminded us all about the importance of breathing. Buzzfeed took us through the mind of every federal employee gracing us with a message from Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Andrew Siciliano of DirecTV’s Red Zone Channel alerted us that the government was officially listed as ‘questionable’ for Sunday.

Jon Stewart took to the airwaves Monday night likening the Republican threat of a shutdown over Obamcare to the New York Giants threatening to shut down the NFL if they didn’t get 25 additional points following their 31-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week.

“They didn’t do that. What I am saying is, wouldn’t it be nice if the United States Congress aspired to the maturity and problem-solving capacity of football players?” Stewart said.

Much to the chagrin of Republicans, October 1 saw the on-time launch of the long-awaited health insurance marketplaces open for business as promised, just with a few more glitches than expected. Both President Obama, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius downplayed the challenges to the user-experience as par for the course given the increase in traffic to healthcare.gov. Obama’s analogy comparing it to the launch of iOS 7 was a bit of a reach, though. Sure, nobody told Apple to stop making the iPhone due to a few bugs, but unlike Obamacare, Americans have a choice to opt out of the iPhone if they don’t like it (without a penalty, I might add), and at least iPhone 5S has a fingerprint scanner. Your move, Obamacare.

I can’t rag too much on Obamacare. After all, I spent two years at HHS educating and informing the public on its key provisions and promoting the healthcare exchanges. That’s why watching Jimmy Kimmel confront a very confused public made me laugh and cry simultaneously. What’s better: The Affordable Care Act, Or Obamacare? Spoiler alert: it’s the same piece of legislation. Worse still, while many agreed that an informed citizenry was an essential part of our democracy, it seems many Kimmel interviewed were in fact, not. Clearly the ACA still has a branding problem.

NPR even had some fun providing single people inside the Beltway with eight can’t miss pickup lines sure to separate the wheat from the chaff in the dating world. “Hey baby, do you not have health insurance? Because you have ’fine’ written all over you.” Zing.

Our friends over at Fox news are living in an entirely different universe altogether, not even acknowledging that the shutdown itself is real. The government isn’t shut down according to Fox, it’s just losing weight, and Sean Hannity is treating the shutdown like Californians treat earthquakes; he just doesn’t quite feel it impacting him, he’s not quite sure what the big deal is, and he’s going about his day as planned.

Nobody can say with any certainty how long the shutdown will last, and while everything that is happening is absolute lunacy, you’ll be much better served by taking the advice of Kevin Spacey’s political alter ego and remembering to breathe normally and appreciate the humor.