Best Practices for Public & Media Relations

Best Practices for Public & Media Relations
Author: 
Scott Berman
Published in: 
May-June
2020

By their very nature, airports require nimble communication teams. One day, it’s a routine personnel announcement or upbeat ribbon-cutting ceremony; but the next can bring an all-out media frenzy about COVID-19. 

The topics airports must address run the gamut, and so do their communication strategies. But there are common threads that run through effective public and media relations departments: They are open, proactive and responsive about issues that affect their facilities, passengers, business partners and communities. 

Rochelle “Chellie” Cameron, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Division of Aviation, considers it essential for key members of airport C-suites to be willing, able and ready to participate in strategic public relations. Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) and Philadelphia Northeast Airport (PNE) are both under her purview.     

facts&figures 

Project: Ongoing Public/Media Relations

Location: Philadelphia Int’l Airport

Staff: 10-member Communications Dept. 

News Releases Issued in 2019: 35

2019 Social Media Activity: 892 tweets; similar volume on Facebook & Instagram 

Podcasts Produced in 2019: 18

New Event in 2020: Media Day, attended by 13 representatives from 10 media outlets 

Event Objective: Provide background about the airport, its facilities, staff & goals to local, regional & industry media; facilitate contact with communications dept. 

Catalyst: High turnover in local reporters who were familiar with the airport

Result: 6 stories (print, broadcast & web)

“Airport executives are part of a robust team of subject matter experts who represent airports in all public capacities,” says Cameron. “At PHL, we are fortunate to have leaders who can speak intelligently to our strategy and vision at industry conferences, in media interviews and to the public at large.

“The return for the airport,” she adds, “is a consistent and polished brand narrative that creates a sense of trust and expertise for the public.”

Cameron frequently “walks the talk” by fielding questions from reporters, speaking at public events and sharing her expertise at industry conferences. She even hosts a monthly podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts, Podbean, Spotify and the airport’s website. 

Industry Leaders

Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) recently recognized several airports with awards for excellence in marketing, communications and customer service. San Francisco International (SFO), Pittsburgh International (PIT), and Reno-Tahoe International (RNO) were among those acknowledged for outstanding public relations.

Brian Kulpin, vice president of Public Affairs at RNO and chair of ACI-NA’s Marketing Committee, notes that his airport emphasizes accessibility, balance, planning, speed, consistency and versatility. “When it comes to working with the media, for example, we make sure that we don’t hide behind our iPhones and computers,” says Kulpin. “We want to be accessible, in-person, whenever we can.”

Building and maintaining relationships with media personnel can help tremendously during a crisis, or when a negative story emerges, he adds. “The media will know you; they’ll have confidence in your messaging,” Kulpin explains. “If you don’t build the face-to-face, in-person relationships, you will pay a price when things get hot.”

RNO establishes and nurtures its media contacts by remaining accessible, balancing robust social media efforts with ample face-to-face interactions, and imbedding reporters in activities such as the airport’s tri-annual disaster drill for FAA Part 139 certification.  

Last year, the RNO communications team executed an intense, three-month program to inform the public and lawmakers about the crucial need to keep open a freeway access ramp that serves the airport. When rapid growth and new development inspired support for closing the ramp, RNO assertively told its story by explaining the essential nature of the ramp and detailing the negative effects of a potential closure. As a result, 85% of public comments about the issue were in support of keeping the airport access ramp open. The final outcome: The ramp remained opened—and RNO subsequently won an ACI-NA award for its public relations efforts. 

The industry organization also recognized the public relations program at SFO. One of its standout efforts was a campaign celebrating the Lunar New Year—an important holiday given the large number of Chinese passengers who fly into SFO to visit North America. 

Marketing and Communications Director Charles Schuler explains that the campaign’s goal was to position SFO as a welcoming and convenient gateway airport. To do so, the airport’s International Marketing & Route Development team worked with Aviareps, a marketing and public relations agency in China, to organize a social media livestream and distribute media kits to Chinese news outlets. SFO also worked with the U.S. office of Hylink, a Chinese advertising and media company, to activate a livestream on Weibo, China’s microblogging social media platform that is similar to Twitter. Because 2019 was the Year of the Pig, one key element was the light-hearted, yet strategic, story of Lilou, the SFO Wag Brigade therapy pig. “LiLou is a favorite with both domestic and international travelers and represents SFO’s welcoming nature,” Schuler notes. 

A full year later, footage of young travelers interacting with the friendly animal is still visible on Facebook. 

Post & Monitor

Sharing videos and images on Livestream and Weibo was a particularly cost-effective portion of SFO’s campaign. It is also a sign of how important social media has become to public relations. 

That said, monitoring social media can be just as important as posting to it. Florence Brown, communications director for the Philadelphia Division of Aviation, emphasizes that airports need to know what people are saying and sharing about them on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  

Brown considers an airport’s social media accounts its “first line of defense.” As such, she recommends using listening tools to monitor postings for negative issues that could escalate. 

For example, apps such as the Khoros, SproutSocial or HootSuite alert airports when people air grievances on social media. By communicating promptly and directly with posters, airports can resolve complaints before they evolve into news items that may or may not be accurate, Brown explains. Social media listening tools can also help find posts with upside opportunities, she adds. 

Social media engagement is a core component of how PHL evaluates its public relations efforts. That is, when the airport publicizes information, the communications team tracks how many times it appears on social media platforms—specifically, how many posts, re-posts, comments and likes it inspires. The team also measures coverage by traditional media, such as newspapers and broadcast outlets. 

Collaborative Communication

In addition to handling its own publicity, PHL helps promote developments at PNE, its local general aviation counterpart. For instance, PHL posted an announcement last year when PNE secured a $9 million Airport Improvement Program grant for runway reconstruction; and again this January, when PNE tenant Leonardo Helicopters won a $650 million contract to supply training helicopters to the U.S. Navy. 

In other collaborative projects, PHL and Frontier Airlines held a joint news conference in January 2019 to announce five new routes; and officials from the airport, city and TSA convened for a media event last November to honor the service of TSA and PHL employees.

In 2018, PHL ventured into an increasingly popular media sector, when Cameron began hosting a podcast about various accomplishments of airport employees. Initially, the podcasts were produced as an internal communications vehicle. Now, the issues and audiences it addresses are wider, with a variety of guests discussing industry trends. 

Last year, Cameron published 18 episodes; in the first few months of 2020, she covered the airport’s in-terminal health and wellness options and provided a behind-the-scenes look at its capital development program. 

In addition to acknowledging employee achievements and promoting operational milestones, the communications department at PHL works to “put a face on” the complexities, responsibilities and goals of the airport—and to do so strategically. As Brown explains it, “We stand as the front line of defense regarding anything that happens at the airport, whether it’s under our purview or not.”

The Communication Department that forms that line of defense includes 10 employees: Brown and three public affairs specialists, an administrative officer, administrative assistant, photographer/videographer, special events coordinator and public relations supervisor. 

Pardon the Dust

Construction and renovation projects, which are among the most conspicuous airport news, require deft communication strategies and tactics. Building new facilities or improving old ones often entails approval issues, traffic concerns, financial implications, and change for passengers, airlines, tenants, employees and other stakeholders. Media is a key tool for addressing such topics and issues proactively.

At PHL, media efforts about capital development focus on why the airport is taking on a given project. The standard focus is on regional growth and enhancing the customer experience, notes Brown. And the dual themes have been getting quite a workout. 

In recent months, PHL has cut the ribbon for a runway expansion project; announced $1 million in state grants to improve commuter rail platforms; and implemented a traveler safety project that includes new crossing signs, warning lights, bus shelters and curb ramps. 

But the public and media are interested in more than capital development projects. Whatever news arises, PHL and other airports must use sound communication strategies to guard their reputations, keep key publics informed and maintain focus on long-term objectives.  

SIDEBAR

Media Day Yields Positive Press Coverage

This January, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) hosted its first-ever Media Day to inform press members about its facilities, staff, priorities and projects. The event lasted about three hours and included presentations from airport executives and behind-the-scene tours of the airfield and terminals. 

It was not a news conference or media availability, notes Florence Brown, communications director for Philadelphia’s Division of Aviation. Instead, the goal was to provide background information to editorial staff and news personnel about PHL, its functions and services. 

Another objective was to provide contact information for the airport’s communication department. Due to a considerable amount of recent turnover at local and regional media outlets, some news outlets were “no longer versed in who the airport is and what we do,” explains Brown. 

In total, 13 people from 10 local, regional and industry media organizations attended the event. Despite a detailed agenda, some attendees showed up expecting a news conference rather than the backgrounder event described in their invitations. So the PHL communications team rolled with the punches and worked with attendees on individual stories. 

“The outcome was still exactly what we had hoped,” reflects Brown, noting that the event prompted informative stories by six print, web and broadcast outlets. Perhaps more importantly, PHL’s Media Day helped expand the knowledge of some reporters who didn’t have much previous experience with the airport. “We were able to get our key messaging in front of them,” notes Brown. 

Subcategory: 
Operations

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