The most frustrating calls we get at AOPA sound something like this: "The city council is meeting next week to vote on closing the airport. Can you help us?"
Pilots are famous for literally allowing airports to close while telling each other what a valuable asset the airport is, er, was.
Public opinion is a powerful force: It can elect presidents, topple dictators, and close airports.
Some airport operators and aviation people believe a low profile will avoid difficulties. Actually, there is no such thing as a low profile for an active airport. The mere fact that the airport exists means people will have opinions about it. The low profile approach is a head-in-the-sand self-delusion.
PR is not just publicity - it involves EVERYTHING the airport is and does that addresses or affects the public interest. The best time to start a planned, positive public relations program is before you need it - probably right now.
Many airport-related problems arise from a lack of understanding by the community and its leaders of the airport's value. Most opponents believe an airport is just for hobbyists and therefore frivolous, expensive and expendable. It's up to you to carefully educate these people on the value of the airport and general aviation to the local community.
A public relations program should include community involvement, political action, and media relations. Ideally, it should be launched BEFORE negative public opinion builds into action and continued even when no crisis threatens.
In a crisis, you can still save your airport, using a condensed and high-profile campaign. Whatever your situation, construct a custom program for your group by choosing the most applicable ideas from this AOPA-developed guide.
The ultimate purpose of public relations is to influence public opinion. The method used is persuasion - convincing people that a viewpoint offered serves their self-interest, or that they should subordinate their personal self-interest in favor of a greater public interest.
While this may sound like a tall order, the only real talent needed is the ability to:
Before you can change public attitudes, you must compare the goals of the airport with those of the community. Your job is to present them as being complementary.
If the community wants growth, point out how an airport attracts business.
If it wants safety, point to the role airports play in law enforcement or in movement of emergency supplies after a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake.
If it wants quiet neighborhoods, point out that lawn mowers and highway traffic, although more familiar, are often louder than neighborhood overflights.
And if the community wants NO growth, point out that once the airport is closed, it probably will be developed for homes or shopping centers - increasing highway congestion and noise.
To make your arguments, you'll need facts. Here are some you can gather that may prove helpful:
Make sure you understand the community's goals and why opponents think the airport interferes with those goals. Is opposition to your airport common throughout the community, or just among a vocal few? Is there positive opinion out there that needs to be strengthened and made public? Is there negative opinion that can easily be erased with a few facts?
Attitude research is commonly done by advertising firms but can be costly. You might interest an advertising class at a local school or university in examining attitudes about your airport at no cost. Local business leaders or civic organizations might also sponsor such research. Even a little data helps.
The worst thing you can do is to appear insensitive to community values and concerns by being unresponsive to complaints. Look at these two very different responses to noise complaints:
One airport manager in the Northeast argues with noise - complaint callers and actually orders airplanes to fly lower in the pattern to punish neighbors for complaining. It's almost as if the manager wants to create an army of enemies in his community.
Managers at Bay Bridge Airport in Stevensville, Maryland, however, raised the pattern to lower the noise. They also speak with every pilot who buys gas, asking that newly adopted noise control procedures be followed. These airport managers have seen noise complaints dramatically reduced and even respond to occasional complaints by attempting to help identify the aircraft at fault. They also provide callers with FAA telephone numbers designated for noise complaints from the public.
Airport #1 is fighting a losing battle against community interests.
Airport #2 is taking positive action that complements community values while assuring continued airport operation.
Here are four things you might try if your airport appears unpopular:
Here are some of the ways you can communicate:
First of all, don't argue against the obvious. Pilots forget that airports and airport projects often conflict with the legitimate plans of others. Respect those plans. Let people know that you understand the potential conflicts and have done your best to minimize them. Convince them that your efforts are not for a select few, but for the good of the community.
Hard-core or irrational opponents of your airport will probably never change their minds or listen to reason, so don't waste your time on them. NEVER enter into a name-calling contest. Treat your opponents as adversaries but not enemies. Be conciliatory and point out that the right to disagree is a shining example of democracy in action. At all costs, remain calm, cool, and collected.
Then aim your positive and upbeat programs at a broader segment of the population who, along with airport supporters, can constitute a majority consensus that will neutralize or overcome hardened opponents.
In a conceptual sense, build your plan around these proven public relations maxims:
Start your efforts to build public support by providing a program for local civic organizations. This is vital, because people who care enough to hold and defend an opinion on community issues are almost always involved with a civic organization.
Don't forget the schools. There are numerous ways to nurture aviation interest among students, ranging from flights for interested teachers to simply collecting aviation magazines and donating them to school libraries. AOPA can supply you with information on our "Fly-A- Teacher" program. Other suggestions of interest include: "Fly A Reporter," "Fly A Leader," and AOPA's "APPLE" (America's Pilots Participating in Local Education) program.
First, list the organizations you want to address. The local chamber of commerce or newspaper can help you with the who, what, and why's of civic groups. The number of opportunities you uncover will help you determine the amount of time and money you need to invest in a suitable community outreach program.
To make it easy on yourself and the audience, build your program around audiovisual aids such as a slide show or flip charts prepared in advance. AOPA can help and, in some cases, provide some audiovisual materials on loan.
Videotape may seem just the ticket at first, but the difficulty of showing video to large groups is a major drawback. A short but interesting slide show is the preferred format for groups of more than 15 to 20.
A slide presentation tailored to your local community is always more effective than a canned speech. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a 40-slide presentation can make a tremendous impression in a short time (like 15 minutes).
Try to include slides that depict the airport serving the community; e.g., Civil Air Patrol, ambulance service, bug spraying, etc.
The slide show will allow you to quickly focus audience attention and make your points graphically. Once the show is prepared, it is relatively easy to present repeatedly. Begin preparation with an outline of the points you think should be made. Take or get photos that make interesting illustrations. Try to find someone who knows enough about photography to get better-than-average photos.
Once you have the photos, work up an outline script with cues to indicate slide changes. If funds are available, the narration and background music can be mixed and recorded on cassette tape by a professional studio or perhaps the local radio station will donate the necessary equipment, time and personnel. A soundtrack will add impact to your show at a cost less than you would expect. Although this level of sophistication is nice, it's certainly not required.
Once you have a presentation together, contact civic groups, regardless of size. If the airport is currently a hot topic, they'll be glad to see you. If the airport's not a hot topic, present your program anyway. Program coordinators for these clubs are always looking for speakers, but schedule well in advance. You'll find most people are really fascinated with flying and have many questions.
If appropriate, take along a petition available for signatures following the meeting. Also take along your group's handouts.
After your audiovisual presentation, reinforce its main points using the perspectives best understood by the audience. For example, bankers understand economic benefits of the airport. Conservationists can relate to the use of aircraft in environmental research. Politicians understand how an airport can attract new businesses. Very few, however, speak aviation - they'll only be confused by a lot of aviation terms. Avoid insider language and any self-interested argument.
Open the floor for questions. If a delicate subject is raised, the speaker's safest response is to admit that he or she is not in a position to discuss it fully. The speaker should then obtain the questioner's name and address, promise a written response, and follow through.
Don't run too long. Half an hour is plenty. If you've hit the time limit and the crowd is getting fidgety, say thanks and offer to answer additional one-on-one questions at the podium.
Airport-sponsored special events are among the best ways to promote aviation in the community. These include: airport anniversary celebrations, military reserve days, air races, static displays, fly-in breakfasts, dedication of new buildings, youth group activities, career days, student art showings, antique shows, and warbird displays. Most can be launched with a minimum expenditure of money and time by using existing facilities at the airport.
Many such projects fail, however, due to lack of proper planning. Basic requirements for a special event include a planning committee, a sponsor, and a small reserve of operating funds. It is generally sound practice to appoint one person to coordinate all planning and information. Don't forget to generate community involvement from local parent-teacher associations, the Boy Scouts, etc.
First, you need a media list. Include all local papers (dailies and weeklies) and magazines, get to know their style, politics, and audience focus by buying samples at the newsstand. Addresses and editor names are printed inside. Get radio and TV station listings from the Yellow Pages or radio/TV section of the newspaper.
Even better: Get listings from media directories at a local public relations firm.
Call media newsrooms, explain the issue you represent, and find out which reporter is most likely to cover it. Reporters are just as anxious to have sources as you are to have coverage. Once contact is made, you may find you have become a source. Try and help the reporter, even if it is only a referral to another person who is directly knowledgeable or involved in a certain question.
If you explain your position in a reasonable manner, you may get coverage. The degree of coverage depends largely on how well prepared you are to assist in the news-gathering process if your cause is currently newsworthy.
Appoint one person as chief contact for your group. Avoid the confusion of multiple spokespersons. The ideal candidate is someone who has done such work before or the president of your group. Reporters like having access to the top dog. Make sure your spokesperson likes the press, is articulate and informed, and can speak with authority on behalf of the group.
News releases, photo captions, and press advisories aren't as difficult to prepare as you might think. A release need not be a formidable piece of journalism, just a timely announcement of a newsworthy event, action, or statement. Samples of format and style are shown on the following pages.
Some of the more advanced software packages, such as Microsoft Word for Windows, already contain templates for press releases. You simply begin typing, and a professionally formatted newsletter pops out of your laser graphics printer.
Press releases will be much more effective when mailed directly to the reporter who needs it, not to the media outlet in general. If no reporter has been identified, address it to City Editor (at a daily paper), Assignment Editor (TV), or News Director (radio).
News releases must be concise, to the point and, above all, contain genuine news. Your prepared news release will seldom answer all the questions a reporter has. It is only meant to generate interest. Therefore, the name listed on the contact line of the release must be easily reachable and ready to speak on the subject.
Here's the way it works: You need publicity, but the reporter needs real news. You get coverage more readily when you have news.
Just having an opinion doesn't constitute news unless a public statement contributes meaningfully to a current, high-profile public debate. Releasing an economic study of the airport, and basing it on accepted standards such as those in this packet, can also be news. Sending a copy to a top official is still bigger news; now the reporter can work the official into the story. Not only that, the reporter will call the official for comment, and the process of "public dialogue" begins, just as you had hoped. In some cases, the public official could perhaps provide you with support by publicly agreeing with the information you have developed.
Usually contact reporters by telephone. You can try an introductory meeting with a key reporter, but reporters are usually short on time, especially if you have no news to offer that day. If you have real news, the reporter will suddenly have all the time in the world for you.
A good reporter is supposed to be fair but disciplined. Don't be disappointed if you can't win the reporter over. You can, however, demand fairness and a lack of bias in reporting, if this is an issue. And some reporters, like the rest of us, have a special interest in aviation. Whenever possible, arrange to take them for a flight. Here again, education is the key.
Be specific when you talk to a reporter, offer genuine local examples, and be sure of your facts. For example, how will proposed restrictions or airport closure affect business, the community, and pilots? Have some social and economic values in mind that affect the majority of the community's nonpilot citizens.
Don't be shy about calling the reporter WHEN YOU HAVE NEWS. Ask on your first contact about the best times to call. For example, reporters for morning papers usually have time to talk in the afternoon or early evening. But reporters for afternoon papers need information early in the morning. Don't call TV stations in the last hour or two before a news show or radio stations just before top-of-the-hour or on-the-half-hour newscasts.
Agree to keep a reporter's confidence on an exclusive, if appropriate. For instance, if he or she has a exclusive angle on the airport story, you should not share information revealed to you during an interview with another reporter. If a reporter from a competing news organization calls about the same facts, however, at least let the first reporter know the story is no longer exclusive.
One last point: You might as well give your press contact all sides of the story - including the bad side. Good reporters will track it down anyway, and it is better that they get it from you - with your perspective. This establishes your credibility with the press as someone who tells it straight.
Establish the best relationship possible with reporters. If you handle yourself with honesty and integrity, the press truly can be an ally. Be able to back up your statements, preferably in writing. And don't be afraid to say "I don't know, but I'll get the answer immediately and call you back."
An aviation day for the local news media, held at your airport, has proven to be an effective media relations opportunity. By all means, sponsor such an event. The AOPA brochure in this packet, How to Have a Successful Media Event, provides guidelines to this and other media relations activities.
Don't forget to offer a flight to those reporters expressing an interest. AOPA's Fly a Reporter brochure will assist you in conducting reporter flights as part of your "Ultimate Media Event."
SAMPLE PRESS RELEASE HEADLINE
ANYTOWN, USA - A sample press release was drafted today to demonstrate such matters as format and style.
Henry Brown, president of Anytown Enterprises Communications Inc., told a press conference, "Preparation of a press release is a matter of some concern. It should contain all of the five Ws."
Brown identified the five Ws as "who, what, when, where, and why." The professional communicator added, "There is also an H: How."
Brown suggested that paragraphs be kept to one or two sentences, with a direct quotation to be included in the second paragraph.
"The professional communicator should also try to keep the release to one or two pages, double-spaced," he added. "Photo captions should be printed on the bottom half of the page, with the picture taped to the top."
The Metropolis Airport Support Group is known for its clear and concise press releases. It has 45 members, including not only pilots, but civic leaders.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Harry Smith, maintenance chief for Airplanes, Inc., explains aircraft repair to students Roger Smith and Patricia Jones and their parents during Youth Day, organized by the county airport board. More than 200 people attended the event.
FROM: County Memorial Airport
Anywhere, IL 60000
Contact: John Doe, Airport Support Group
An airport support group of 50 pilots and businessmen will attend Friday night's city council meeting, with a petition asking for a three-month delay in the planned closure of Our Town airport. Many of the participants will carry signs urging support for the airport. The group expects to arrive at 7 p.m. in the north parking lot, where John Doe will be available for interviews.
What can you do if the news media treats general aviation unfairly or displays careless disregard for the facts? The best solution is a letter to the editor.
Political action and public relations tie closely together in any campaign to gain support for a local airport. While a successful public relations campaign focuses primarily on the objective of influencing "public opinion" concerning an airport, political action focuses on influencing those elected officials who make decisions on important airport issues.
The American system of government was founded on the basic principle of democracy, which, by definition, is "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation." If democracy is indeed the foundation on which the American system of representative government was founded, then grass-roots legislative action or grass-roots lobbying is the vehicle that makes that system work-the meat and potatoes of the American political process.
Certainly, the political process is the vehicle that keeps airports open. The following points are guidelines for your group to consider as it participates in the political agenda governing your airport.
A successful political action campaign requires a commitment of your time or the time of another reliable person within your group. Another important element your group should focus on is to obtain an appointment to advisory groups or airport commissions. Success in obtaining these valuable seats on advisory committees will give you a direct line to important elected decision makers.
There are several steps you will need to undertake in developing and implementing your political action involvement. The number of steps you ultimately decide to implement will be a factor of the level of influence you wish to enact.
When seeking a personal meeting, be sure it is with someone who counts. Usually the elected official is very busy and may or may not have knowledge or an interest in your problem. In this case, seek out the person or professional staff that he relies upon to advise him in his decisions. By all means, avoid getting a meeting with a "gopher" or someone with a high-sounding title but who has no authority or responsibility.
Once you have set up a meeting with these persons, find out what their backgrounds are. Find out how they stand on aviation issues and what their past actions and stated opinions were.
If possible, avoid going alone. Take one or two other members with you, but don't overwhelm them with a group of people. Be sure all of you are familiar with the issues.
Regardless of your feelings, remember this is a business meeting. Be cordial; get down to business quickly. Be careful not to let it turn into a meeting with no direction and no decision. Make sure your people are properly attired.
Prior to your meeting, review your priorities, then stick with the problem you want to attack and concentrate on that issue.
If you have enough time for advance planning, AOPA can provide valuable information that will improve your presentation. Also, helpful statistical information is provided in the "AOPA AIRPORT SUPPORT PACKET - RESOURCE GUIDE."
Meetings where decisions are made affecting the airport must be monitored and whenever necessary, incorrect or false information that would have a negative effect on the airport must be countered with the facts - facts that can be documented. Never provide information that can not be substantiated. During the decision-making process and associated public hearings, avoid using terms like "I think," or "we believe." Present hard and fast facts. In most cases, undisputable facts will influence the decision in your favor. Usually, those who oppose the airport are presenting an emotional plea to their elected officials.
When going before a public meeting, make sure you properly identify yourself and the support group you are representing as an opponent or proponent. Let the chairmen know whether you want to speak first or last; usually they will accommodate you.
Normally (especially if there is news media coverage), it is best to appear first. But being last sometimes will give you an opportunity to clarify any questions or refute any points the opposition may have raised. It will also give you an opportunity to watch the committee's reaction to other people's statements and positions. Being last will help you identify any support you may have on the committee and aid you in making a more effective presentation. Which position you choose will be a judgmental decision on your part. However, beware if it looks like it's to be a long, drawn-out meeting. Don't hold back too long or you will lose their attention. The committee may get bored and upset to the point where your presentation will be totally ineffective no matter how good it is.
Many public meetings have limits placed on the time that you have to make a public presentation. As a final "DO," at all costs, honor those time constraints.
The quickest way to win the support of an elected official is to assist him or her in becoming the successful candidate in an election.
Once the airport group has made the decision to become active during an election, it's important that a personal meeting be scheduled with each of the candidates to determine their position on airport issues that are of interest to your group. This is not a time to be shy. Be straightforward and ask the candidates for their position. Only after you have interviewed each candidate can you make a decision as to whom your group should support in the election.
It is also advisable to submit a list of specific questions or issues you would like to discuss with the candidate prior to the meeting. This will enable the candidate to research the issues. Additionally, you are more likely to receive an answer to the question without the candidate telling you that he isn't familiar with the issue. Embarrassment (which politicians despise) will be avoided.
You should also be prepared with information supporting your views should the candidate need additional information during the meeting.
There are a number of ways that your airport group can assist a candidate to become an elected official. Some of the more common actions taken during a political campaign might include:
The key to winning political support for your campaign is your involvement. Elected officials will always listen attentively to those who assisted them in becoming an elected official.
Whenever elected officials are in your area for a public meeting or speaking engagement, take the opportunity to visit with them.
AOPA sponsors a series of Pilot Town Meetings with elected officials and pilots across the country. Don't miss this important forum if one comes to your area.
If you need information about a specific piece of legislation or an issue, feel free to call the office at (202) 479-4050. Read "AOPA Action" in AOPA Pilot for legislative updates, as well.
AOPA thanks our members for their continued support in protecting the freedom to fly.