Frank Gilanelli, president of Barton Gilanelli & Associates (BGA), says the number of pilots in the US has declined from about 800,000 post-World War II to about 610,000 currently.
The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA), which has about 410,000 members worldwide, hired BGA to extol the benefits of learning to fly and to debunk myths that it's a costly, complicated, and lengthy process.
"They needed a consumer program because membership for AOPA will grow as we can get more people interested in flying," Gilanelli says.
The team devised a broad media relations plan. Messaging touted the excitement and practicality of piloting airplanes, as well as the career opportunities, ease, and affordability of learning to fly.
"There's no special skill necessary," says Jeff Myers, AOPA EVP of communications. "It might seem difficult to the general public, [but] we're trying to demystify those perceptions."
Challenges include competing with other activities for discretionary time and money, and dealing with the occasional tragedy, such as the death of the New York Yankees' Cory Lidle last year after his plane hit an apartment building.
"It's a rarity, " Myers says, "but it makes high-profile news."
The effort also sought to raise awareness of ProjectPilot.org.
Giving reporters a chance to fly planes was the primary focus.
Gilanelli says reporters in cities hosting air shows were pitched firsthand flights as a way to show their audiences that they weren't limited to just watching airplanes.
"[We've] never had one journalist take an intro flight and not say, 'Wow!' [with an] ear-to-ear grin," Gilanelli adds.
The angle of giving flight lessons as gifts was pitched in accordance with numerous holidays and occasions, including graduations. BGA also used seasonal tie-ins, including New Year's to-do lists. Flying was pitched as a recreational activity for all seasons.
Business benefits were framed around efficiency for business owners and career opportunities for professional pilots. Gilanelli explains that expense, difficulty, and the need for special abilities to fly are all myths. "You can rent an airplane for around $80 to $160 an hour - it's no more probably than a rental car," he says.
The program generated 33,260 visitors to the site, but the team stresses that people don't have to go the site to sign up for flight lessons. AOPA reports 5,000 new pilots in the past year, compared with 2,400 the previous year.
Gilanelli says flight schools around the country are astounded by the response. "[After] a Philadelphia TV segment, the flight school featured sold nearly 100 gift certificates," he notes.
Myers says TV coverage is particularly well-suited to showing off the joys of flying, and Web site hits spiked whenever a TV segment ran. At the end of 2006, 371 stories had provided 50.5 million impressions.
Coverage included Today, the CNN Industry Watch Web site, The New York Times, USA Today, LA Times, and The Detroit News.
The campaign will continue. Gilanelli says additional tools will be added, including blogs and online media. "We'll be stepping up our online monitoring, both in-house and with outside monitoring services," he adds.
PR team: Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (Frederick, MD) and Barton Gilanelli & Associates (Philadelphia)
Duration: December 2005-ongoing
Budget: $250,000 to $300,000
Clearly, letting reporters play with planes is a pretty good way to get coverage. Trial flights are helpful, too, in dispelling myths about difficulty and allow reporters to relay that firsthand. Beyond the obvious appeal of intro flights for reporters, the team showed tenacity with creative angles and pitching multiple outlets at every opportunity. It seems very few occasions are not good for giving or receiving flying lessons. Who knew?
It's perhaps surprising that this effort didn't beef up online resources sooner. The Internet provides myriad opportunities not only to track candidates, but also to display video. The effort would do well to continue its great start online.