MEDIA ROUNDUP: Increased industry coverage comes with baggage

In a world where bad headlines threaten to control much of the airline industry's PR, communications staffs can get positive press off the ground by employing more proactive tactics.

In a world where bad headlines threaten to control much of the airline industry's PR, communications staffs can get positive press off the ground by employing more proactive tactics.

Even if it wanted to, the airline industry couldn't stop making news these days. Every recent world event, from the Bali terrorist attack to the war in Iraq to SARS, has negatively impacted air travel, putting many major carriers in severe financial straits. Add to that such issues as who should fund the training and deployment of airport security personnel and equipment, and whether commercial pilots should be allowed to carry guns in the cockpit, and you have an industry that's permanently on the front pages of both the financial and general-interest press. Though some of this increased coverage may be temporary, veteran aviation and airline public relations professionals say airlines have always generated a lot of press - as well as attracted a lot of high-quality journalists. "It's a very competitive beat," says David Messing, managing director of corporate communications at Continental Airlines. "Airlines have always had an extremely high profile, due to the fact they have such a strong economic impact. The topics change but the...coverage doesn't change. It's like communications on steroids." Quantity of coverage changing But what is changing is the number of reporters writing airline-themed stories. In the past, airlines and aviation were covered by a large but well-defined group of reporters, many of whom had been on the beat for years. David Fuscus, CEO of Washington, DC-based Xenophon Strategies, says those reporters not only knew the industry inside and out but were comfortable with the PR process because many of the communications professionals they dealt with had also worked in the industry for years. Now, says Linda Rutherford, director of public relations for Southwest Airlines, "because of all the intense pressure among the 24/7 news organizations to get it first, there's a whole stable of brand-new reporters who've been brought on specifically to cover the airline industry, who we spent a significant amount of time educating." Rutherford says media calls to Southwest, which had been running about 100 to 150 a month before September 11, soared to more than 1,000 immediately after; they are currently running at 600 to 800 a month. Fairly or unfairly, the airline industry as a whole has always found it hard to get positive press. "It's kind of the industry that everybody loves to hate," points out Fuscus. "Usually there's not a lot of sympathy for the airlines, although there was some post-9/11." Whatever media goodwill the industry has built up since the terrorist attacks is long since gone, and the airlines can't blame it all on world events. Recently the American Airlines CEO resigned, and the company was blasted in the press when it was revealed that executives had failed to notify employees about lavish bonuses and bankruptcy-proof pensions they had given themselves at the same time they were demanding concessions from rank-and-file union members. When only bad news is news But another reason airlines have trouble getting positive press is that while uneventful plane flights aren't news, airplane accidents and even close calls are always major stories. As a consequence, Matt Triaca, manager of the aviation and transportation practice at Burson-Marsteller, says a huge portion of airline PR is devoted to crisis communications. "A lot of what the industry does is behind-the-scenes preparing for when, or if, a crisis should occur," he says. "It can be anything from an operational disaster to a weather incident to SARS, which will impact travel significantly. So when something does occur, the proactive communications is critical, and they're in a position to do just that." Fuscus, whose clients include plane manufacturer Airbus as well as the Air Transport Association (ATA), notes that even during slow financial and consumer news periods, the federal government can always be counted on to help generate aviation-themed stories. "Congress pays a great deal of attention to the aviation industry, which is really not a surprise because you've got 435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate, most of whom are flying somewhere every week, so they're exposed to it," he says. "They're very hard on us, and they draw a lot of coverage as well." Rich Nelson, director of media and public relations for United Airlines, says that his company has been attracting more reporters because it's in bankruptcy, a fact that has changed the company's PR strategies as well. "Bankruptcy is a very transparent process, since most of it takes place in open court and is accompanied by motions and documents that are available to the media almost the instant they are filed," he says. "So the reporters who cover us are following that very closely and what we do is help them interpret what's going on in the courts." Nelson points out that United's bankruptcy has been primarily a print story, largely because it's hard for the broadcast industry to cover it, as cameras aren't allowed in the courtroom. Fuscus agrees that print tends to cover the industry more often, but stresses that aviation and airlines can get their share of TV and radio coverage - and not just on the business networks. "Right now it tends to be financial stuff because the industry is in such a crisis, but if it's not that it's customer service," he says. "There's a huge demand for talking heads from the airline industry on the talk shows or Headline News." PR strategies for good times Given so many airlines' struggles, Southwest Airlines has been able to get coverage simply based on the fact that it's doing well and that many of its business strategies differ from those of its competitors. "We've always had a reputation for when the rest of the industry zigs, we zag," says Rutherford. "Most of our media relations is reactive because it's a busy industry," she adds, noting that Southwest has an internal PR staff of 16, nine of whom are spokespeople. "But we still make a concerted effort to do proactive outreach because we continue to want to get off the business page." Southwest works with Porter Novelli to help it formulate much of its PR strategy. Some of this involves the traditional travel and leisure press, which Porter Novelli SVP Stacy Trevino says is often a harder to pitch than general-interest media. "We sometimes have to be even more creative with the travel press because they want to cover destinations as opposed to how you get there," she says. But Porter Novelli also works to leverage Southwest into other media categories as well. One such instance is a recent story for Child magazine in which a Southwest flight attendant provided tips on how to travel with children. "Because of what the Southwest people bring to the table, we can position them as experts on a particular topic," adds Audrey Adlam, Porter Novelli SVP and director of national media relations. ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; LA Times; The Washington Post; The Dallas Morning News; Chicago Tribune; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Houston Chronicle; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Financial Times; USA Today Magazines Time; Newsweek; Forbes; Fortune; BusinessWeek; US News & World Report; Conde Nast Traveler; Travel & Leisure; National Geographic Traveler; Departures; Business Traveler Trade Titles Aviation Daily; Aviation Week; Jet Fuel Report; Airport Revenue News; Aerospace Daily; Airport Week; Regional Airline News TV & Radio CNN; CNNfn; The Travel Channel; Fox News Channel; MSNBC; CNBC; network evening news shows Internet;;; (Air Transport Intelligence)

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