Security places airports in spotlight

Though coverage often focuses on their security efforts, airports have other stories to tell, including community outreach and business development.

Though coverage often focuses on their security efforts, airports have other stories to tell, including community outreach and business development.

While the airport disaster movies of the 1970s and the recent NBC show LAX employed airports as the backdrop for dramatic entertainment, as a source of news, they can be a much harder sell. Barring a major accident, airport stories typically appear on the Metro page, with pieces that delve into economic development or debates over noise and traffic. But recent worries over aviation-related terrorism have elevated airports into a good source for spot news and features. "Folks that may not have ordinarily paid attention to airports do so today as a result of the attention focused on security," says Pasquale DiFulco, senior PIO at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, which oversees LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark airports. "It's a national story that every outlet tries to localize." Touchy subjects Nancy Castles, PR director at Los Angeles International Airport, adds that although her office tracks about 35 different airport-related topics in the press, "about 90% of the calls we get have something to do with airport security." But the security debate can put airport PR departments in a difficult situation, since the federal Transportation Security Administration handles most of those efforts. "The whole debate over pat-downs, we never touch that," says Bob Parker, media officer for the Port of Seattle, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. "So we really spend a lot of time educating reporters about what we have control over, what we don't, and what we can talk to them about." What airport communications departments do focus on is a great deal of community outreach and business development - with the occasional crisis communications effort. And in most cases, PR is handled in-house, without agency help. Pauline Armbrust, editor and publisher of the national trade outlet Airport Revenue News, says that many airports operate with fairly tight budgets and devote their resources to strategic marketing aimed at luring new airlines to their gates. But Armbrust does note that many airports are beginning to realize the importance of media relations, and they are getting savvier in their courtship of the local and regional press. "A lot of that has to do with so much expansion going on across the country," she says. "They've heavily invested in capital improvement programs and as a result are under a lot more scrutiny." Barbara Gann, PR and marketing officer for Salt Lake City International Airport, says most of this outreach is done through personal contact with reporters. "We predominantly deal with the local press, and I just think releases are an antiquated way of doing it," Gann says. "The local papers have reporters who cover us regularly, but we also deal with law enforcement reporters and features on occasion." Because of their sheer geographic size and the noise generated by arriving and departing planes, airports are often engaged in running disputes with nearby residential communities, and the local press covers such stories extensively. Community focused Julie Rodriguez, PIO with the City of Phoenix Aviation Department, which operates Sky Harbor International Airport, says most reporters, especially those on a business beat, realize the importance of a busy airport to the local economy. "We receive calls from the business reporters at The Arizona Republic on a regular basis," she says. "We have events such as topping-out ceremonies that mark the halfway point on construction projects, and it's almost surprising how much coverage we receive." Rodriguez adds that coverage of airports doesn't really have any seasonal trends, with the one exception being the Thanksgiving travel story. "Local print outlets cover that, and we also get every radio and TV station out here as well," she says. "That's great for us because we love to get those travel tips out." Airports can be complex operations, in some cases handling more than 40 million passengers annually and generating billions for the local economy. DiFulco says these big-picture stories will get covered, especially in a media market like New York, but suggests airports should also look to publicize smaller projects and events that showcase an airport's role in the community. "Sometimes it may be just a press release announcing that some local choir is performing at Newark Airport," he says. "But what we always try to do is show ourselves in as positive a light as possible." ------ Pitching... airport stories
  • In many ways, airports are mini-economies. Business reporters, therefore, are often receptive to pitches about new food vendors, airlines, and development contract wins
  • Media relations officers can localize security stories by reassuring the community about the safety of an airport's parking lots and fueling operations
  • Cultivate relationships with community-based reporters and smaller news outlets so that your airport can get a fair hearing on issues such as noise, traffic, or environmental issues

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