With press scrutiny increasing after 9/11, Los Angeles World Airports' PR team for Los Angeles International Airport looks to communicate the hub's many activities to an international audience.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) might have a more famous face than many Hollywood stars. Used often as a location in major motion pictures, the airport was also the focal point of the recently canceled TV drama LAX.
But LAX is also one of the busiest airports in the world. Though it ranks third in the US in terms of total passengers each year, more people start their trips at LAX "than any other airport in the world, and with that goes a lot of extra work," notes Paul Haney, deputy executive director of public and community relations for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which owns and operates LAX. "When you start a trip you've got transportation issues, parking issues, as well as the security and screening of baggage and passengers."
The sheer volume of passengers at LAX, which reached nearly 61 million last year, creates both challenges and opportunities. On the positive side, it enables Haney and his staff to work with the local travel and tourism industry to position the airport as the gateway to the West Coast. But along with that comes myriad communication responsibilities that extend far beyond just keeping the local press informed.
"In this 24-hour, seven-day news cycle, when something happens at LAX, it's worldwide news," points out Thomas Winfrey, a media specialist with LAWA.
As if dealing with the media's attention to post-9/11 aviation issues at LAX isn't enough, LAWA's communications staff also handles the Ontario, Palmdale, and Van Nuys airports in the area.
Haney does this with a staff of nearly 30 employees divided between media and community relations. "That's really important because, while you may think of LA as the entertainment capital of the world, on many days it seems like the media capital of the world," he says.
"And if we didn't have a separate focus, the media piece would totally consume the entire staff."
Handling media attention
Both Haney and PR director Nancy Castles came to LAWA after lengthy tours in business PR and have tried to bring some traditional corporate communications strategies to the agency.
"I've worked in corporate PR at American Airlines and also at Lockheed [Martin], and the activity level here, as well as the intensity of the media scrutiny, is every bit as much as the private sector," Haney says. "I used to feel there wasn't as much interest in the financial side." But even that's changing as LAX begins to fund a modernization program that has brought interest from the bond community.
Castles points out that being part of the local government means that LAX operates under a far more stringent set of rules. Not only are airport board meetings televised on the local government-access channel, but virtually every document and e-mail produced at LAWA is legally fair game for both reporters and the public. "The media may come in and ask for videotape that may exist for all thefts that may have happened at LAX from 2000 to the present," she says. "In the corporate setting I wouldn't be dealing with that."
Since 9/11, the number of news events and press conferences has grown 150% to nearly 50 annually, Castles explains. And media inquiries are up 50% to nearly 3,000.
And that means more work for a staff that has been reduced to 1994 levels by budget cutbacks. At any given moment, LAWA is tracking as many as 30 different airport-related issues, several of which are related to anti-terrorism. "The security-related issues are the most sensationalistic and the easiest for local reporters to grasp and understand," Castles explains. These include security breaches at passenger-screening stations, terminal evacuations due to unattended bags, and suspicious items detected in checked luggage.
Though LAWA produces more than 100 press releases annually, Winfrey says about 65% of their media relations work tends to be reactive. "We have four media relations specialists in the office, and we all take general media calls," he explains. "And we're not just getting the local and national TV, radio, and newspaper outlets. We're getting calls from the BBC, the Japanese papers, and Australian radio."
This global attention doesn't happen by chance. "We work with LAWA to promote the fact that Los Angeles is an international hub, and they are a great partner of ours," notes Chris Heywood, corporate communications manager for LA Inc.: the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Each year more than 20 million visit the LA area, generating $11 billion for the local economy. Heywood points out that a significant percentage of that comes from overseas. "The international traveler is a very important customer for us, with Japan being our top market and the United Kingdom being our second top market," he says. "Their role in this is pretty crucial, so our media relations team works very closely with Nancy. We're in contact with them almost daily."
Whether it's issuing a tips list for holiday travelers or dealing with a breaking crisis, such as when the airport was shut down last September after a security scare, Castles says, the key to doing media relations for such a complex and diverse operation is coming up with consistent messaging.
That's not easy, given the number of local and federal agencies that might be involved in an LAX-related story, including the FBI; Customs & Border Protection; the Transportation Security Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; as well as the LA Police and Fire departments.
"All of these agencies conduct their own public relations regarding their operations at LAX," she says. "In addition, about 20 airlines have a PR presence in Los Angeles, and the challenge for us is to ensure coordination of our individual and various messages, while allowing each organization to conduct its own business."
Changing for the future
The communications team must juggle the issues of the day with long-range planning, including making the case for modernizing LAX.
The last major modernization, which took place before the 1984 Olympics, enabled the airport to handle between 40 million and 50 million passengers annually. Haney points out that traffic is now well above that and could reach 78 million a year in the next 10 years.
"One of the challenges we've had beside communicating the way the airport operates in the post-9/11 environment has been convincing the public that we have urgent needs here that need to be met through modernization," he says. After a long process that included a great deal of public education, as well as some old-fashioned politicking, Haney says, the project received final city approval in December and is now awaiting a Federal Aviation Administration record of decision this spring.
Once the major capital improvement gets the final green light, LAX will be the site of construction for the next 10 years, which will present an entirely new set of communications challenges. Some of those efforts will involve educating the general public about any delays, and the fact that LAX is smack in the middle of one of the most congested areas in the US means neighborhoods also will be impacted.
Community relations director Barbara Yamamoto heads a staff of 15 and says her primary goal is to get out ahead of any potential conflicts arising from current or future activities at the airport. "That's why we spend a lot of time working with a diverse set of community organizations," she explains. "Because our role is to meet with people face to face, give them that one contact they can go to for any issue, and know we'll be able to deal with it or put them in touch with someone who can."
For Yamamoto and her team, that means attending the monthly meetings of civic, business, and neighborhood organizations.
"That way, when we have an issue we need their help with - such as traffic or noise or the overall environmental impact - we already have those established relationships that we can tap into and ask for support."
Deputy executive director of public and community relations
Community relations director
Media relations representative