To win back public trust, airlines are relying on PR more than ever. And the word “safety,” once taboo, is now part of their everyday lexicon.
By SHERRI DEATHERAGE GREEN
On the surface, airline communications may appear to be back to normal. American Airlines once again touts extra leg room, and British Airways gives away vacation flights on Concorde jets. Continental promotes its international business-class seats, and Delta its self-service kiosks. Sass is back in Southwest’s ads.
But normal is a relative term. The occasional light feature or fluffy destination piece does pop up amid stories about terminal evacuations and financial losses. The two biggest issues facing airline PR people, however, remain topics they once were loath to discuss — security and operations.
“What you saw in the fall was airlines speaking to customers in ways
that they previously avoided,” observes Chris Chiames, a public affairs
managing director in Burson-Marsteller’s
Speaking a new language
Expectations flip-flopped after September 11. Flyers now want safety assurances before they step on planes or buy tickets. The catch-22 for airlines, however, is that talking about security can jeopardize it. Jonathan Thompson, associate undersecretary for the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and its director of communications and public information, says his staff won’t talk about the nuts-and-bolts of the agency’s activities but will provide travelers with information on how to speed up the screening process.
Since airlines can’t talk about what’s going on behind the scenes, they must make sure passengers notice the publicly visible aspects of enhanced security by doing things like improving airport signs, Chiames says. “You don’t want people to leave with the notion that nothing has changed,” he adds. That can be a tall order these days, given stories like the one USA Today broke in March about federal investigators successfully slipping knives through checkpoints on 70 percent of their attempts.
Closely related to both operations and security is the issue of customer service. In the heady days before the economic downturn, a glut of affluent leisure travelers and road warriors with expense accounts clogged airports and often pushed airlines beyond their capacity. Flight delays seemed the norm instead of the exception. The Chicago Tribune sent reporters to airports exactly one year before the terrorists attacks to research the Pulitzer-winning “Gateway to Gridlock” series. Flyers, in short, were fed up.
Despite their frustrations, passengers cut airlines some slack after September 11, recognizing the need to sacrifice convenience for safety. As the months wear on, however, patience appears to be wearing thin.
“Our CEO, Jim Parker, has said that many people are over their fear of flying. Now we just have to get them over their fear of the airport,” quips Ginger Hardage, corporate communications and PR VP for Southwest Airlines.
Golin/Harris commissioned NFO WorldGroup to conduct an e-mail-based trust survey in February. Few industries scored high marks given post-Enron skepticism, but the airline/travel industry ranked near the bottom.
The awe of defying gravity demands a lot of trust, Chiames says. “You have very high expectations, and when you don’t get the information you think you should be getting as a customer, you quickly move from trust to distrust.”
“The airlines were sort of hit by a triple whammy, a perfect storm,”
adds Mark Rozeen, a Golin SVP in
As competition heightens, good customer service becomes a selling point. Airlines are using their service strengths to differentiate themselves. Continental points out that it didn’t eliminate meals after September 11, for example, and more emphasis is being placed on push messaging, or notifying travelers of flight problems in real time by sending automated messages via cell phone, e-mail, pager, etc.
“For everyone’s short- and long-term survival, there needs to be a
huge focus on brand-oriented messaging — who you are and what you stand for as
a product and as an organization,” says Julie Winskie, a senior partner with
Porter Novelli in
PR’s rising prominence
Some airline spokespeople say September 11 gave management a greater appreciation for PR.
“The role of the communicator as a generalist was so vital to the success of the recovery effort,” claims Lisa Bailey, corporate communications director for Midwest Express in Milwaukee. Her department took over functions it normally wouldn’t handle, like communicating with travel agents and frequent flyers. “We had to talk to passengers, customers, the general public, employees, shareholders, and we had to talk to all of these people at the same time with a consistent message.”
As always in tough economic times, emphasis shifts to PR as ad budgets shrink. “Everything’s game,” says Mayte Sera Weitzman, AeroMexico’s one-person U.S. PR department. “We’ve expanded our niches so we can have more reach and frequency.”
Across the board, however, airlines are doing more with less, or at least without any additional resources. Delta, Continental and American cut staff and/or reduced agency spending. Southwest maintained its internal staffing level, but took a six-month hiatus from its relationship with Porter Novelli. Not only did United lose two spokespeople, along with other corporate communications employees, it all but discontinued work with agency of record Fleishman-Hillard, and United’s media relations director Andy Plews left for a job with Harris Bank in Chicago. His position remains unfilled. “It’s hard to recruit people right now, given the precarious financial situation at United,” admits media relations manager Joe Hopkins.
One of the few flight-related organizations looking to hire a PR firm and add communications staff is Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Public affairs VP Ken Capps says 16 agencies responded to his RFP for a $200,000 contract, which should be awarded in May.
Other airports, which often are operated by government agencies with limited budgets, don't have that luxury. Lauren Stover, public affairs manager at Miami International Airport, says she often resorts to mini-press teleconferences to meet reporters’ deadlines.
Journalists have become hypersensitive to airline issues, says Catherine Stengel, general manager of Delta’s media relations team. “Routine events, such as the occasional ill-behaved passenger, will inevitably lead the 11pm news,” she laments.
Increased call volume forced Southwest’s PR team into a responsive mode and limited its ability to initiate new programs, Hardage says. Cross-town rival Tim Doke, corporate communications VP at American, says his overworked staff “is beginning to show a little wear and tear.” Both agree, however, that airline PR generally doesn’t attract people looking for regular hours.
From an IR perspective, airlines perform balancing acts of expectation management. “The issues are set for them, and they really have to be good at responding to them,” observes Howard Zar, SVP and IR director at Porter Novelli. Although “load factors,” or the percentage of occupied seats on flights, have increased, airlines are scraping to regain profitability because fares have dropped and business travelers are less likely to buy expensive, last-minute tickets.
Despite what economists might say, Doke doesn’t see signs that the recession is over for airlines. “The primary messaging is that we are recovering, rebuilding, rehiring and restoring service to many of the markets,” Doke says.
While airline PR may be regaining some semblance of normalcy, the industry still has a long way to go. “The best way to get this industry healthy again is to communicate to the traveling public that it’s OK to travel,” says Ned Walker, Continental’s SVP of worldwide corporate communications.
TRANSPORTATION SAFETY ADMINISTRATION
In D.C., did President George Bush the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) decree. But this being no Xanadu, it couldn’t just appear out of thin air no matter how hard policymakers wished.
In November, the President signed the bill creating the TSA, which someday will be responsible for the safety of our airports, highways, pipelines and railroads. The new Department of Transportation (DOT) division began overseeing airport screening in February and will hire some 40,000 employees by year’s end.
Its public affairs department is a work in progress. Jonathan Thompson, formerly head of external relations for Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, leads the fledgling office. In early April, his three permanent staffers were being helped by public affairs officers on temporary rotation from other DOT departments. Thompson expects to have regional spokespeople in place by the end of June. Ultimately, his staff will number about 45, with assistant directors in charge of internal communications and consumer education/outreach as well as stakeholder, media and international relations.
“We obviously need to be the confidence builders in the public’s eyes,” says Thompson. Messaging likely will emphasize the quality of the agency’s personnel, recruiting and training.
For now, transportation reporters say dealing with the TSA can be frustrating. Once-rare terminal evacuations are becoming routine, but since airlines no longer control security, neither they nor airport officials can answer all the questions reporters ask. Clearing out a terminal is the TSA’s call, and short PA staffing means journalists often don’t get authoritative answers before deadline. Thompson says many such questions are being deferred temporarily to regional Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokespeople. One reporter who recently covered a terminal evacuation, however, says FAA press information officers weren’t comfortable speaking on the record for TSA.
Looking on the bright side, Frontier Airline’s communication VP Elise Eberwein says the situation encourages airline PR people to make new friends. “If it’s done anything, it’s certainly required the airlines and the local airport officials to link up beforehand,” she says.
Read more airline stories:
Airlines keeps PR course with flying colors
West’s turnaround is down to it’s employees
PR keeps Continental flying toward profit
Airlines braces for most turbulent journey
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