Frequently asked questions about Christopher Elliott

Who are you?
How did you get involved in this kind of work?
I see you all over social media. Is that really you, or do you have a staff?
I didn’t like one of your recent articles. I thought you were unfair and I strongly disagree with what you wrote. I sent you a point-by-point rebuttal. Why haven’t you responded?
What kind of a consumer advocate are you, anyway?
Wait, I thought you were a travel blogger?
How can you be a journalist and an advocate at the same time?
Hang on. You publish a travel blog and you founded an advocacy group for travelers. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?
If you’re such a do-gooder, then where’s your Pulitzer?
Come on. I’ve seen you on TV and I heard you even hosted a radio show.
I understand you have a checkered past. Care to explain?
You’ve done a lot of travel writing. Ever taken a free trip?
I’m a professional, and I find your level of knowledge of my industry appalling. Please stop writing about my business.
I belong to a popular site for frequent travelers, and we think you’re a hypocrite. What do you have to say for yourself?
You spend almost as much time criticizing consumers as you do companies. Whose side are you really on?
What is your agenda?
You like to throw around the phrase: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” a lot. Please explain what you mean.
I hear you talking about the “rules of engagement” a lot. What are they?
I have a PR question. You’ve sent us an email asking about something we’d rather not talk about. What are my options?
Will you speak to my group or convention?
We’re having a debate and we want to invite you — will you participate?
Do you attend trade shows or conferences?
Do you belong to any trade organizations or associations?
Do you do any product endorsements?
What about your other sites? Doesn’t having ads compromise what you do?
What makes you different from the other consumer advocates?
Do you have any weaknesses?

Who are you?

I’m a consumer advocate and journalist. Here’s more about me and the causes I fight for.

How did you get involved in this kind of work?

I started as a business reporter and began to get involved in consumer disputes in the mid-1990s because readers asked me to.

Looking back, I think the one moment that made me decide to do this as a career was when I was paging through a scrapbook my mother kept from 1968, the year I was born. It contained an article from the Charlotte Observer, in which she’d written to the consumer reporter asking for help. He got a refund for her. (Coincidentally, my column is now syndicated in the Charlotte Observer.)

This may sound idealistic, but I’m focused on making the world a better place, one case at a time. I’m not a lobbyist. I have no political ambitions. I don’t even care if people recognize my name. Actually, I rather prefer the anonymity of working behind the scenes.

I see you all over social media. Is that really you, or do you have a staff?

It’s all me. Every post, every comment and every tweet is mine. Also, I don’t game the system in any way — I don’t buy followers or try to rig my pages for better SEO. I believe important content will eventually rise to the top of the search results.

I didn’t like one of your recent articles. I thought you were unfair and I strongly disagree with what you wrote. I sent you a point-by-point rebuttal. Why haven’t you responded?

I’m sorry you didn’t like my story. I believe you have the right to say what you want about my posts, which is why I have a fairly permissive comments policy. I would suggest you leave your critique as a comment on my site.

What kind of a consumer advocate are you, anyway?

I try to focus my efforts on customers who are genuinely wronged. I also help people help themselves by offering advice on how to navigate the system. That’s why I’m here.

Wait, I thought you were a travel blogger?

I’m not a travel blogger. This is not a travel blog, it’s a consumer advocacy site.

How can you be a journalist and an advocate at the same time?

Everyone has an agenda, and maybe I’m just a little more open about mine. I don’t claim to be a news reporter — you know, the kind that requires complete objectivity — but have always referred to myself as a journalist and an advocate. I’m hardly alone. The journalism world is filled with people who wear two hats.

In other words, you know what the story will say before you do your research?

I make every effort to do my homework and decide what the story is after I’m done with my interviews. Drives my editors crazy. But I think you can be an advocate and also be fair to all sides.

Hang on. You publish a travel blog and you founded an advocacy group for travelers. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?

I don’t publish a travel blog. My partner edits a site called Away is Home, and since she’s the mother of my children, I often travel with her on assignment. I occasionally contribute stories to Away is Home. But I’m not involved the day-to-day operations of the site. As for the nonprofit, it’s true that I helped start an organization called Travelers United in 2009. Although I’m no longer actively involved, I’m proud of the organization and what it’s been able to accomplish in Washington.

If you’re such a do-gooder, then where’s your Pulitzer?

I don’t submit my work for awards or fellowships. Helping consumers is enough reward for me.

Generally, consumer advocates aren’t nominated for awards, and if they are, they don’t win them. Even so, I was recently named Journalist of the Year by the American Society of Travel Agents. That’s gotta count for something.

Come on. I’ve seen you on TV and I heard you even hosted a radio show.

It’s true, I hosted a cable TV show on travel for one season and I co-hosted a radio show. Both turned out to be career mistakes, because they took me away from what I do best, which is — you guessed it — to help consumers.

But you’re no Mother Theresa. I understand you have a checkered past.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t have a few scrapes with the authorities. Anyone who tries to advocate for consumers is going to get into a little trouble — whether it’s a subpoena from the Department of Homeland Security or a libel lawsuit. I’ve been there.

And when you trust your sources — and I almost always do — you’re going to get the story wrong a time or two. I’m actually proud of my combat record. I haven’t won every battle, and haven’t always been right, but I’m still here, fighting for what I believe. Here are a few of my favorite mistakes.

You’ve done a lot of travel writing. Ever taken a free trip?

I used to work for a travel trade publication, and I spent years as a freelance travel writer. Do the math.

I’m a professional, and I find your level of knowledge of my industry appalling. Please stop writing about my business.

I’m the first to admit I’ll never have the deep insight into any industry that someone who works in it does. But your industry is not my subject; it’s customer service. That’s where I’m an expert.

If I happen to get something wrong about your industry, please let me know. I’m more than happy to fix it. But I’m not going to stop writing about it.

I belong to a popular site for frequent travelers, and most of us think you’re a hypocrite. We know more about the industry than you ever will. By offering people a shortcut to getting their problems resolved, you’re encouraging them to remain ignorant about the rules. Also, your implied threat of writing about an unresolved dispute amounts to nothing less than extortion. What do you have to say for yourself?

You may know more about your industry than I do. If journalists had to be experts on every subject before writing about them, there would be no media organizations.

I write and advocate in order to inform consumers, not to make them ignorant. If you read only a few posts, you would see that. I struggle with reader problems every day, and there’s often a spirited debate in the comments about whether I should mediate a case. I frequently refuse to get involved in a complaint because, well, rules are rules.

Finally, regarding the bullying: Ouch! But I can see how it would look that way. I wish I could show you the emails between company representatives and myself, in which we work together to find the right resolution to a problem. And don’t forget, I only write about a fraction of the cases I mediate, so most companies know that when I contact them I’m just trying to help a customer.

But in the end, I doubt I’ll be able to convince you that I’m doing the right thing. You’ll just have to believe what you want to.

I’ve read your work. You spend almost as much time criticizing consumers as you do companies. Whose side are you really on?

Look, it gets messy out there in Consumerland. I’m interested in a fair outcome of a dispute. I want people to get what they paid for. I’m not here to stick it to any business and I don’t have a hidden anti-corporate agenda.

Well, what is your agenda?

When every consumer reads their contract carefully, asks all the right questions, patronizes only ethical, customer-focused businesses and knows how to resolve any disagreements in a polite and productive way, I’ll fold up my laptop and ride off into the sunset. My work will be done. Until that time, I’m here to help.

You like to throw around the phrase: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” a lot. Please explain what you mean.

That’s an old journalism adage. I see myself as being a voice for the voiceless: comforting the afflicted, in other words. Many consumers have knowledge, attorneys and money at their disposal, and they don’t need me. I’m fine with that.

Sometimes, when you stand up for the little guy, you realize that the people who have everything — the “preferred” customers with the gold cards sitting in the first-class lounge, are part of the problem. If they’re offended by my sometimes populist rhetoric, then I feel as if I’m doing my job. That’s what “afflicting the comfortable” means to me.

I hear you talking about the “rules of engagement” a lot. What are they?

They’re common sense rules that your parents should have taught you, like “no hitting below the belt” and “no name calling.” And “mind your manners.” When you don’t observe these rules — which is to say if you’re impolite or if you cause others to be impolite — then I have a pretty strict policy about not responding to you online, offline or anywhere. I’m terribly sorry, but shouting won’t get you noticed.

I have a PR question. You’ve sent us an email asking about something we’d rather not talk about. What are my options?

I would answer the question honestly — but also, let me know about your misgivings. After all, I’m here to make things better, not worse.

Ignoring my inquiries, or claiming you never received them, usually backfires. So does saying that you decline to participate in a story.

Will you speak to my group or convention?

Yes, I do lots of public speaking. But I limit my topics to customer service and consumer advocacy issues.

Please don’t ask me to talk about travel writing, making money as a travel blogger, or travel and social media. I think I’ve said all that I’m going to say on those topics.

We’re having a debate and we want to invite you — will you participate?

If by “debate” you mean you want me to politely discuss an issue in a public forum, then yes. I love a spirited and friendly back-and-forth online or through one of my columns. If you mean a “debate” as in “high school debate team” then I’m sorry, that’s not really my thing.

Do you attend trade shows or conferences?

Not if I can help it. I avoid crowds unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Do you belong to any trade organizations or associations?

Sorry, I don’t play well in groups. Nothing personal.

Do you do any product endorsements?

My email newsletter is supported by corporate underwriters, just like NPR or PBS. I do not sell links on this site. Underwriters support my consumer advocacy. I used an affiliate link to track the sales of my last book on Amazon. I’m a terrible shill (trust me, I’ve tried it). I feel compelled to tell the truth, always. I think I make a much better consumer advocate.

What about your other sites? Doesn’t having ads compromise what you do?

I’m involved with several other sites that either accept ads via Google AdSense or that have paid sponsors. But there’s a wall between the business operations of those projects and the editorial decisions that get made on this site, just as there is at any large news organization between advertising and the news department.

There are a lot of other consumer advocates out there. What makes you different from the others?

I love the other consumer advocates. Most of them do great work. The world needs more people like them.

I became an advocate to help you — that’s my only cause.

I don’t charge anything for my advocacy. I read and answer every email I get personally. I work every case myself. And I don’t just write about the problems I successfully resolve. Instead, I openly discuss my failures, too. (Often, you can learn more when you strike out. Trust me on that.)

Another thing that makes my advocacy practice different is my emphasis on fairness and self-sufficiency. I try to let all sides speak before making up my mind about a case. Wherever possible, I also help consumers help themselves. Indeed, in a vast majority of cases, I quietly remain in the background, advising consumers on how to resolve a conflict.

Put differently, consumer advocacy is not my career — it’s my calling. Just knowing I could help is enough recognition for me.

Do you have any weaknesses?

Sure! I have a thing for tabloid headlines and online polls that ridiculously oversimply an issue. My stories aren’t always fair (even though I try to be) and I sometimes lose my objectivity.

Also, in order to make ends meet and support my family, I sometimes do freelance work for businesses. I’ve written speeches, press releases and made appearances on behalf of corporations in the past. These relationships are always disclosed. But as someone with a traditional journalism background, I wish they were not economically necessary. It would make my life so much less complicated.