MEDIA: The travel industry needs a lesson in media relations

The relationship between consumer journalists and the industries they cover is bound to be fraught - if the media side is doing its job.

The relationship between consumer journalists and the industries

they cover is bound to be fraught - if the media side is doing its

job.



We’ve all bought computers which crashed, found helplines unanswered,

and endured delayed holiday flights. But should communications be

allowed to break down, to the point of open warfare?



The tricky issue of how PROs deal with critical journalists and the

publications and programmes (such as Watchdog) they represent was nicely

underscored by a tirade in the Mail on Sunday last weekend. Frank

Barrett, the seasoned travel editor, told his readers to ’look in vain

on these pages’ for a report on the annual convention of the Association

of British Travel Agents (ABTA) taking place in Queensland, Australia,

in November.



ABTA, he wrote, ’has declined to invite me after having done so for the

past 22 years. The decision is ABTA’s way of showing its unhappiness

with the critical views of the travel industry expressed here.’ The

subtext is that Barrett has branched out into broadcasting, with niches

on ’infotainment’ programmes like ITV’s Holidays from Hell.



At the serious end, Barrett has been ahead of the game, voicing

scepticism about the future of package holidays in a static market of

cut-throat margins, where operators are consolidating, yet customers’

expectations are continually rising.



’If ABTA thinks that by banning me it can expect more favourable

coverage, it is sadly deluded,’ added Barrett. ’The critical views are

generally your opinions, sent by letter, fax and e-mail ... rest

assured, we shall not be gagged.’



Is ABTA right to take a leaf out of Alastair Campbell’s book and act

tough with a journalist who displeases? Well, Keith Betton, ABTA head of

corporate affairs, remains on the attack: Barrett attended last year’s

convention with his family, stayed for only half the proceedings, and

did not seem to take it seriously, he says.



The problem, for tour operators, is that the Mail on Sunday, the

dominant middle-market Sunday player, has some six million readers, many

well-heeled and keen on travel. Barrett controls the travel section:

last Sunday, the paper also carried a spread on how to go to Majorca,

prime package territory, in the footsteps of Michael Douglas and

Catherine Zeta Jones.



In an ideal world, travel editors and travel companies should aspire to

a workable relationship. Yet there is value in fighting back.



The Broadcasting Standards Commission’s dispassionate annual report out

this week refers specifically to consumer programmes, saying a

significant number of complaints have been upheld against Watchdog. In

the past year, Airtours has even taken the unprecedented step of

advertising an adjudication in its favour. The next step must be

constructive, engaged debate.



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