Why Aviation Needs Smarter PR Practitioners

By Robert Mark on April 21st, 2008

Despite having spent a significant part of my life as a communicator, I know what people think about public relations. Many think it’s fluff. Some call it spin … that magical talent for transforming an often ugly issue into something else entirely to divert the reader’s focus … to force their brains to think about the other side of the story.   American Air

Regardless of what people think, however, a little work on the strategic and tactical communications dials and levers to convince people to see the other side of an issue is not always a bad idea.

Take airport community relations. Without it, most people living around an airport would never think about anything except aircraft noise. If a community relations program works well and adds a little much needed balance to the debate, everyone learns more about the economic importance of an airport.

However … the importance of using bright, truly clever communicators and letting them run with their gut feelings about an issue is critical, although in our industry even that doesn’t often seem to help much.

MD-80s at ORD

I spent a couple of hours at Chicago O’Hare a few weeks ago during the passenger mess the FAA created to dramatize to Congress – and American Airlines of course – who was really in charge.

For once, I wasn’t in any great hurry to get anywhere since I’d been invited by one of the TV networks to comment on the chaos as thousands of tired, hungry and frustrated people behind me looked on.

What made a bad situation worse was that the PR people from American that I spoke to at ORD seemed to have little idea what to do that first day. In a terminal stuffed with thousands of people waiting in line for hours, someone set up a small table with granola bars and orange juice. Of course, since no one told passengers the goodies were there, almost no one tried any.

“Why don’t you drag some of the carts out from the MD-80s sitting on the other side of the airport?” I asked. “Why not bring over some coffee or go buy all  the sandwiches and salads from Wolfgang Pucks and Chili’s, bring over some folding chairs and try and make these people comfortable?” No response. Some might have called it a deer in the headlights look.

To the tens of thousands of passengers inconvenienced by the groundings, American Airlines was the culprit that week, not the FAA. The airline had a perfect opportunity – what I’d call a text-book public relations opportunity – to show their customers how much they cared even in a crisis and they blew it, just like almost every big airline seems to do when they make a mistake. I wondered how Southwest Airlines would have handled it?

An Aviation Surge

And then adding insult to injury last week, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told the media that her people were going to help the FAA police the airline petersinspection mess they themselves helped create. The new stepped-up compliance program was going to be called a “regulatory and enforcement surge.” I can only imagine how pleased some government public affairs person was over their choice of words.

Personally, after the mess we’ve created in the Middle East, I’m offended by the use of that term surge to imply any kind of positive focus, but I was especially upset that someone connected a bungled military tactic with the civilian aviation industry.

I realize that millions of Americans have come to expect almost nothing of value other than a ride when it comes to our industry, but this is too much.

But, maybe it’s just me.

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One Response to “Why Aviation Needs Smarter PR Practitioners”

  1. Bill Says:

    Well, remember 28% (or is it 22, or 12% now), thinks the “the mess we’ve created in the Middle East” was a good idea, is going well, and would do it again.

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