Singapore Airlines will always stress safety, but VP of PR James Boyd works to ensure that customers know they'll also enjoy the trip - a message that's proving profitable to the Asia-based carrier.
"There's a fantasy element to this work - vacation, escape, exotic places - and an enormous responsibility," says James Boyd, who was promoted to Singapore Airlines' VP of PR for North America last year. "It's [also] life and death. You feel a personal sense of responsibility. It's a very powerful experience."
Boyd is connected to Singapore's flight center via cell phone 24/7, and he is called into action whenever there is an incident anywhere in the world that could affect operations. The London bombings were a recent example.
"All major events have an instant impact on whether or not you can operate your aircraft," Boyd says. "We have flight crews on the ground in London and need to communicate to our passengers. Information is constantly flowing in real time. We're always evaluating the scope of the response. If there is loss of life, it is that to the power of 10."
On October 31, 2000, Boyd faced "the worst nightmare" when a Singapore Airlines 747 bound to Los Angeles from Taipei crashed on takeoff, killing 83. It was Singapore's only crash since it began as a regional carrier in 1947.
"[Boyd's] credibility quotient went up [when] he was the point person for that disaster," says Kim Hunter, president and CEO Lagrant Communications, who has known Boyd for 10-plus years. "His face was everywhere. He handled himself with professionalism for his company and those passengers."
The entire industry was staggered the following year by 9/11. Despite the darkness of this particular hour in airline history, most people's notions of travel contains some thoughts of glamour. Perhaps it is travel's intrinsic emotional allure that will be the beleaguered industry's saving grace. Travel itself is still appealing, even if most of the airlines that deliver us to our destinations have given up a considerable amount of luster and all but abandoned service.
Singapore, however, is about luxury, which makes it an anomaly.
"This business is about having an impact [on] not only what people think about your brand, but how people feel," Boyd says. "That's the direction we've taken in the last six years. We've spent a lot of time on how people think. We're putting emphasis on how people feel about air travel - the psychology of creating a more satisfied passenger.
"Buying travel is an emotional decision," he continues. "[We're] positioning [Singapore] as a luxury brand and digging into the psychology of what that means for consumers. No one needs to pay $9,000 to go to Singapore. They feel it's appropriate. It feels like the right start to their vacation."
Weber Shandwick is the airlines' AOR in the US, and Rene Mack, president of the travel practice, believes Singapore has done well focusing on the in-flight experience. He says that Boyd elevates media relations by integrating the philosophy of brand marketing and brand communications.
"James does exceptionally well slicing down the brand and product so you can tell the story to any number of titles in vertical markets - food, wine, tech, wellness, fashion," Mack says. "If it's wine and food, he'll bring people down to participate in the selection process."
Boyd says Singapore does very few press trips. The ones it offers steer clear of convention. For example, the airline took the media on a wine tasting trip to Singapore to see how decisions are made about spending its $16.5 million wine budget.
"He's made the airline transparent in many ways, which has also given it a lot of credibility," Mack says.
A main motivation for Boyd in his PR tactics is a belief that aviation PR is in danger of becoming formulaic.
"We want to avoid that by using developments with our product as examples of something broader," he says. "Instead of the standard press trips, we try to use our products as an example of where the industry is going. While other airlines cut back, we reveal a process of how money is spent. It allows us to claim a unique position in the industry. Because we're not struggling through the financial crisis, it allows us to speak more broadly about where the industry is going." (Singapore reports a $820 million operating profit for 2004-2005.)
Boyd has had a love of business and journalism ever since his days as a "military kid" growing up in Ocean View, CA. But after being denied a job as editor for USC's calendar while in college, Boyd found his true passion - PR.
It began with a paid internship at Hilton Hotels, where he learned skills that he still uses today. Next came a stint as an intern at Burson-Marsteller's LA office, which led to a summer in Paris with the firm. Harold Burson himself was impressed with Boyd, making a point of acknowledging the young PR pro in a conference room full of staffers.
Boyd speaks French fluently and used the skill in working with a French agency in representing Conrad Hotels while with Burson. "[It] led to strong interest in international PR," he says. "Stepping outside of [the] American world view or paradigm is something I found to be very helpful in working for Air New Zealand and now Singapore."
Boyd says he will always value the breadth of experience Burson provided him, but he enjoys the sense of ownership in corporate PR. He believes companies will continue to be less bound by nationality when looking for talent.
"[There is a] necessity for Americans to gain a better understanding of world views not based in this culture," he says. "[It's] personally fulfilling and dramatically broadens options and opportunities for professional growth.
"A black American guy is the chief spokesperson is in this hemisphere for arguably the world's best airline, which happens to be based in Asia," he continues. "[It's] a snapshot of what we're likely to see in the future."
Singapore Airlines, VP of PR, North America
Singapore Airlines, PR director, USA
Air New Zealand, PR director, Americas
SZM Public Relations, SAE
Hilton Hotels Corporation, PR coordinator (1989-1992), assistant manager, corporate identity (1992-1994)
Burson-Marsteller, PR intern (LA and Paris)
Hilton Hotels Corporation, PR intern