What's AOPA doing with the media after the Kennedy tragedy?

July 23, 1999

What’s AOPA doing with the media after the Kennedy tragedy?

As “The Voice of General Aviation,” AOPA has stepped up to work forthrightly with the media in pursuit of “fair, accurate, and insightful” coverage.

Work began 10 a.m. Saturday morning with CBS’s call to the home of AOPA Senior Vice President of Communications Drew Steketee to “get to the studio and help” with breaking news coverage. On one hour’s notice, he was “in the chair” and working with Dan Rather for the next six and a half hours until CBS re-grouped for its evening news program.

AOPA did an estimated 150 media interviews in the first four days alone, including 60 Minutes, 20/20, Dateline, CNN Sunday, and Geraldo Rivera, among others. There were multiple appearances on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox Cable plus airings on NPR Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and taping for an upcoming A&E/Discovery Channel/Learning Channel cable special.

An appearance on Face the Nation on CBS is tentatively scheduled for Sunday. [Steketee’s scheduled appearance on Face the Nation on CBS Sunday has been canceled as CBS wisely reads public opinion and moves on to other news.] AOPA worked on CNN reports for this weekend that address the accident’s impact on general aviation’s future.

Steketee was heard nationwide on Tuesday, July 27, beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern time on the Jim Bohannon Show on Westwood One stations, the former Mutual Radio Network. Some 5 million listeners catching this “Top Five” nighttime talk show heard general aviation’s side of the story.

In contrast to the aviation-friendly Bohannon, Steketee’s appearance earlier in the day on the United Broadcasting Network’s Newsmakers program was a barrage of challenges and plane crash anecdotes.

Host Michele Laxault, daughter of former Nevada Senator Paul Laxault, began by regaling the audience with details of her father’s ditching in San Francisco Bay short of the Oakland International runway some years ago. Fortunately, Steketee was familiar with the accident and put it in perspective for the audience. The half-hour did progress to more educational material, with the hosts admitting they were learning something about general aviation they didn’t know.

“It was the toughest little ‘ambush’ interview I’ve had in about 10 years,” said Steketee, “but I think we came out on top.”

On Monday night, famed attorney and aviator F. Lee Bailey appeared with others on Larry King Live after consulting with AOPA about information for the program. It went perfectly until the last five minutes when the guest from the NTSB said, “You know, somebody like AOPA should put a spokesman on TV after a crash, like the airlines do....”

Luckily, Lee Bailey straightened them out on that one, citing AOPA’s open and extensive availability with the media this week.

AOPA President Phil Boyer, after returning from Pilot Town Meetings in Alaska, was interviewed live from the cockpit of his Cessna 172 on MSNBC’s Evening News With Brian Williams and appeared on the evening news programs of the broadcast networks. Williams referred to the review of the Piper Saratoga II HP, which, coincidently, appeared in the July issue of AOPA Pilot magazine ( “Saratoga Style”).

Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg used the extensive resources of ASF’s Nall Report, the annual analysis of general aviation accidents.

There were interviews with key national and big-city daily newspapers including in Kansas City, where several major airport closure or expansion decisions are imminent and could be affected. In-depth interviews were conducted by U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek.

Throughout, AOPA attacked reports that private pilot trainees get no instrument training. The association corrected misconceptions about VFR flight plans and explained FAA “NTAP” radar playback, spatial disorientation, and the human physiology of instrument flight.

On Thursday, the media saw AOPA President Boyer appear before Congress, making unprecedented use of a PC-based flight simulator to demonstrate night flying issues and private pilot instrument skills to the House aviation subcommittee.

This may have been AOPA’s biggest-ever crisis communications effort. Hundreds of members are telling AOPA the association’s response to this tragedy is appreciated, appropriate, helpful to public understanding, and considerate of the families involved.

In a break with the usually formal relationship between reporters and news sources, many media representatives have praised AOPA for its forthright and clear communications with the public during this crisis.

July 23, 1999