Getting your message out: Public relations and business aviation
For an industry all about communications, the public relations (PR) industry is actually a private one.
When a newspaper or magazine features a company you do not see how the journalist found out about them or why they have chosen to write about it now. You do not see how the journalist was sold on the idea. You may not even realise if they have just cut and pasted a press release.
Corporate Jet Investor asked a number of agencies that specialise in business aviation communications to explain the dark art of public relations and why they think companies should hire them. (If you are a PR agency and would like to join in, please let us know.)
The PR specialists who took part – speaking for once about themselves rather than clients – were:
- Phil Anderson, executive director, Citigate Dewe Rogerson
- Natalie Besgrove, director, Natalie Raper Communications
- Marc Cornelius, founder and managing director, 80:20 Communications
- Taunya Renson-Martin, managing partner, MachMedia
- Mark Lowe, PRagmatic Communications
What type of business aviation clients have you worked with?
Phil Anderson: I first started working in the business aviation sector when I was hired to manage the European PR launch of Jet Republic in 2008. Since then I have worked with Beechcraft Corporation, Textron Aviation, Nextant Aerospace, Hangar8, Gama Aviation, GlobeAir, On Air Dining, Magnus Aviation, Stellar Labs and Global Jet Capital.
Marc Cornelius: In business aviation, we work with almost every type of business: OEMs, operators, FBOs, technology vendors and service providers. Current clients include Textron Aviation, Luxaviation, ExecuJet, Avinode, PayNode, Web Manuals and Flightworx. Others we’ve advised include Rolls-Royce Civil Aerospace, RocketRoute, Bell Helicopter and Gogo. Outside business aviation we’ve worked with clients such as Delta Air Lines, American Express Global Business Travel and Scott Dunn.
Natalie Besgrove: I have worked for the widest range of business aviation related clients from aircraft operators, caterers, online booking platforms and aviation conferences. At the moment my clients include Centreline which is very varied, as they are full service business aviation group. There is always something going on. Down-Route is an expense management and hotel booking platform for the business aviation industry which is great to PR as it is a new and unique product.
Taunya Renson-Martin: A wide variety over the years, including FBO providers, charter operators, brokers, OEMs, trip support providers and a range of other services providers. Additionally we have worked with IBAC and with the European Business Aviation Association for a decade.
Mark Lowe: Presently, I am working with TRAXXALL Technologies (aircraft maintenance tracking), ZenithJet (technical services for Bombardier Globals), Elit’Avia (aircraft charter, management and operations) and Leader Aviation (marketing solutions for aircraft sales).
What value does public relations add to business jet companies in particular?
Marc Cornelius: “A company’s reputation is crucial to its success – be it winning customers, attracting staff or satisfying investors. Being well known isn’t enough – you need to be understood, respected and trusted. There are always new entrants and would-be disrupters in business aviation, but whether you’re a new booking app or a long-established charter operator you need to tell your story in an engaging way. Communicating the right messages through press coverage, social media and marketing content can keep you top-of-mind and help you grow.”
Taunya Renson-Martin: I think it’s important to point out that any particular communications strategy will be more effective when part of an overall, holistic integrated approach. Good PR works better when it’s tied into the full communications and marketing mix, all supporting the corporate strategy. Public Relations is just one arrow in our quiver. For maximum impact, we encourage our clients to look across the full landscape of strategic communications – branding, events, media relations, online lead generation, advertising, social media, public affairs, etc – in order to best promote their brand.
A piece in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg TV could be more powerful for your business than an article in an aviation trade title.
Phil Anderson: PR can provide huge value to business jet companies. Not only is there the financial value of the media exposure secured, used correctly it is a very powerful tool to build a brand and communicate key messages. It can also help you differentiate your proposition from competitors.
One way of doing this is to target stakeholders by using the non-business aviation media. National newspapers, broadcast media and relevant vertical titles such as those targeting potential business aviation clients (e.g. finance directors, hedge funds or private equity firms) often tell me they never hear from the business aviation sector even though they would like to. In some circumstances, a piece in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg TV could be more powerful for your business than an article in an aviation trade title.
As well as building a brand and generating business leads, PR can play a very important role in protecting a business aviation brand. Sadly some parts of the media see business aviation in a negative light, associating it with the excesses of the very wealthy and privileged. However, those in the industry are aware of the huge business benefits provided by the sector, the contribution it makes to employment and economies in general, and the other range of positive services offered such as air ambulance. PR has a key role to play in communicating these points and protecting the reputation of the industry as a whole, as well as individual brands in the sector.
Natalie Besgrove: Operators and aircraft management companies in particular work in a very competitive market and business aviation, because of its very nature, relies on building trust, authenticity and credibility. Out of all the tactics within the classic marketing mix, PR is the one activity which gains the most trust within the customer. If you compare PR to advertising, for example, the consumer knows it has been paid for and contains messages that have come directly from the company.
When you send out a press announcement, get interviewed by a journalist or put your product forward for review, you are getting a third-party endorsement, which in my opinion cannot be bought.
Crisis management, the reactive side of PR, is critical for business aviation companies in particular. Often, because a company may feel they are too small to be concerned, have their operational producers firmly in place, should the worst happen, with media handling being missed as important part of the crisis manual. The way that the media are handled during a crisis can make or break a business.
When you start on a new exercise regimen or diet what is the first thing you do? You weigh yourself. An effective marketing communications strategy has to do the same.
How can you show this?
Taunya Renson-Martin: Measure, measure, measure. It sounds simple, but no approach can be effective without setting objectives and KPIs in advance and seeing how you track against them. When you start on a new exercise regimen or diet what is the first thing you do? You weigh yourself, take your body mass index and do baseline testing. You need to see where you’re starting. An effective marketing communications strategy, for any sector, has to do the same.
Phil Anderson: There are the simple financial ways in which you can evaluate PR. For one business aviation project we secured over 300 media hits in 18 countries across Europe in one month including the Financial Times and Bloomberg and a range of country national newspapers, as well as the aviation trade media. An independent evaluation company estimated that the value of this exposure was over £2.2 million, and that it generated over 96 million opportunities to see.
However, perhaps the best way of evaluating the effectiveness of PR is to gauge the level of new business leads that is generated on the back of campaigns, and to also capture industry feedback on your PR activity.
Marc Cornelius: There’s a whole range of KPIs you can use to measure the value of PR, from detailed press coverage analysis to opinion research to tracking incoming website traffic. We help each client decide on the KPIs that are right for them and have written an ebook on the subject, which you can download for free from our website
Natalie Besgrove: PR should be part of an integrated marketing/business development plan contributing to a wider goal. A good reputation and creating awareness can contribute directly to sales. If a company continues an upward trend in performance during the period of PR activity it has probably helped contribute to this. I have also seen some crisis situations handled badly resulting in the collapse of a company and conversely, handled well, resulting in barely a blip in business performance.
Is business aviation any different to other industries?
Marc Cornelius: Business aviation has a particular challenge in how it’s sometimes portrayed as an indefensible luxury for the elite. OEMS, brokers and operators tend to be watchful for this and emphasise the industry’s unique and valuable time-saving benefits. However, there are still bear traps out there for the unwary, particularly with non-trade media. As well as telling the right story you need to be selective about media opportunities.
Phil Anderson: I have worked in PR for 27 years in a range of sectors including retail, investment management, banking, insurance and consumer, and the business aviation sector strikes me as being quite different.
It often appears to me to be much more inward looking and does a lot less to communicate its position to stakeholders outside of its industry than other sectors I have worked in. I think this has contributed to the misunderstanding many stakeholders have of the sector. The more mainstream media as well as relevant sector publications are keen to learn more about your industry, but they rarely ever hear from you.
The industry has a very positive story to tell at a general level and in many cases on a company basis, but more needs to be done to communicate this effectively.
The media outside of your sector is generally very keen to write about you – after all using a picture of a private jet is very powerful image for them. You just need to come up with a strong and compelling news angle – of which there are many.
Natalie Besgrove: Business aviation seems to have the widest range of associated businesses outside of the core business jet operator/ management companies than many other sectors.
Taunya Renson-Martin: At its core, no, not really. Every industry has its own idiosyncrasies. But any good marketing/communications/PR program should have similar elements of identifying different audiences and then developing engaging stories and campaigns to reach out to them. Whether I’m selling aircraft, frozen dinners or televisions, that core aspect is the same – what do I need to tell people to get them to care about my brand? How do I spark their interest? Then speak to that interest to keep them engaged.
In business aviation, like other sectors, the audiences we reach out to are extremely varied. Look at the different range of services from private aircraft sales to charter to FBOs – that is extreme diversity. We often refer to them by the shorthand of “front of aircraft” versus “back of aircraft.” Your back of aircraft audience is the principal passenger and his/her affiliates. The front of the aircraft is where you find the pilot, crew and all the supporting infrastructure. The content you make for these two groups is very different. For the VIP principal passenger, we’d cover topics like financing, working with your Board of Directors to promote use of private aircraft, luxury holiday getaways, etc. For the Ops audience, we’d talk about things like career advancement for pilots, challenging mission profiles or bulk fuel purchasing. Those are two very distinct audiences.
Posing with (aircraft) models
Is the job of public relations to sell aircraft, flights or other services?
Phil Anderson: I think it is all of this and more. PR at its best should support marketing and business objectives which invariably means selling aircraft flights and other services. However, in what is a crowded marketplace, PR has a huge role to play in helping you promote and build your brand, and ultimately to position your proposition as the best – even it is not!
With the rise of digital media and ‘fake news’, the risk of your brand being damaged has also increased and PR has an important role to play in protecting it.
Mark Lowe: I think it may be an oversimplification to suggest that PR directly sells products or services. But, if we can agree that awareness is a necessary pre-condition to any sale, then the value of PR becomes apparent.
Marc Cornelius: Part of our role is to stimulate customer demand, but we do that by communicating what you’ve done that is new, interesting and makes a difference to other people. That isn’t the same as hard-selling every empty leg or special offer: as editors are quick to point out, self-serving sales messages are not ‘news’.
While we often promote product or service launches, we also support sales indirectly by getting clients written about frequently or quoted as experts. And, sometimes, PR is nothing to do with selling at all – for example, when we handle damage limitation in a crisis or help keep your staff informed and motivated. The common thread is your reputation and how we help you manage it.
Natalie Besgrove: I don’t believe that PR should ever stand-alone but it can help create the awareness of services that can lead to sales.
Taunya Renson-Martin: To be effective, good PR has to be objective, credible and trustworthy. Otherwise, just run an ad. So our job in this field is to tell dig into what our company is offering and get to the heart of why our audiences should care about it. We have to answer the core question: “What’s in it for me?” We often start at that point and try to develop communications that are more outward- rather than inward-focused. PR isn’t selling but, if done properly, contributes to an effective overall brand outreach strategy.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Marc Cornelius: “Managing client expectations is a key part of our job. Not every business can realistically expect to be a national news story, and it takes longer to build a high industry profile than some first expect. Sometimes what a client believes is a major story is in fact only of interest to them. At times like these, our job involves giving candid advice that may not be immediately welcome, but it’s the first step in building an appropriate strategy that delivers valuable PR results for the business.
Another frequent challenge is getting clients to understand that they need to spend money on decent photography to support press releases. Passport photos or product shots taken on your iPhone won’t cut it with editors and immediately put your story at a disadvantage.
Passport photos or product shots taken on your iPhone won’t cut it with editors
Natalie Besgrove: It can be tough when a client does not have much going on – that’s when you really have to look at things from a different angle. By taking a step back and pressing the refresh button you can find news where you at first you thought there was none.
Phil Anderson: Given that a large part of what I do is supporting some of the biggest names in financial services, the hardest part of my job in recent years has been dealing with the PR around many of the significant challenges my clients have faced.
In terms of my work in business aviation, it is probably engaging with the mainstream media and trying to educate them on what is happening in your industry in a way that they find newsworthy and that they want to write about it. Given that your industry has so much data, this is certainly achievable.
Taunya Renson-Martin: Staying on top of it all. To be effective, we need to keep up to speed on all the latest trends within bizav as a sector, but also all the trends within the marketing communications field, and the underlying technologies. But I wouldn’t pick any other job. I really love what I do. And I believe everyone on our team would say the same.
Do you prefer dealing with trade press, national newspapers or television?
Phil Anderson: Television is probably the most satisfying because this is the hardest to secure client interviews on. Here, you often need to set your client’s news in a wider context, and by doing this we have been able to secure regular slots for our business aviation clients on the likes of CNBC, Bloomberg TV and the BBC.
Natalie Besgrove: Trade press without a doubt. As long as you make an effort to provide news that is relevant to the publication it is usually welcomed.
Marc Cornelius: Working with trade media is rewarding because we’re dealing with journalists who understand the industry and with whom we’ve built strong relationships. Pitching to a national newspaper is exciting but very competitive, so you need to build a story that is absolutely right for the outlet and journalist, which often means relating it to a wider trend. Nationals often carry a greater degree of risk, because the journalist may not understand business aviation or may want to score points by portraying the industry negatively. With TV, you really have to proceed with caution. It can reach a huge audience but not necessarily a relevant one, and some shows are out to create sensational stories by misrepresenting you. We’ve had some excellent results on TV but will still decline an opportunity if we can’t get the assurances we want.
Taunya Renson-Martin: I like the variety of different types of journalists, because they require different things from us. With mainstream or broadcast journalists, we often need to step back and articulate the big picture. Mainstream outlets don’t take for granted, for example, that business aviation is an important contributor to economic growth and employment. We need to lay the foundation a bit more and they challenges us a bit more. Trade journalists challenge us as well, but differently. They challenge us to dig deeper into the specifics – new aircraft, new technologies, new services. With them we have to provide more details and depth about our clients, because they know the space so well.
Mark Lowe: Dealing with trade press is generally preferable because they have clearly-defined interests and they bring a high level of expertise to the table. This is particularly true in business aviation.
Managing the trade press at EBACE
How annoying are journalists?
Natalie Besgrove: Only when dealing with a crisis situation have I found that, in some cases, journalists can behave in not the best way!
Mark Lowe: I do not find journalists annoying at all! I’ve been fortunate to work with very professional people. They have a job to do and they do it well.
Taunya Renson-Martin: I have been lucky in my career in working with pretty good ones. I understand they have a job to do and I feel we need to work with them in order to succeed. Like a good politician needs a good lobbyist in order to get their message out. There is a symbiosis and, oftentimes, a mutual respect.
Marc Cornelius: We always tell clients that journalists are not out to get you, but they aren’t your marketing department either. Journalists write for their readers and need to deliver stories that are interesting and useful to them. If the client understands this, most journalist interactions work well for both parties. It’s only on the rare occasion that a journalist is ill-prepared, rude or has an axe to grind that they could be called annoying, and then you need to win them around.
Phil Anderson: I honestly don’t find journalists annoying. They have a very tough job to do and its perhaps not surprising when a journalist on a national newspaper, for example, gets a bit grumpy with PRs when they receive anywhere between 200 and 300 pitches for stories every day. The key to getting on with journalists is to put yourself in their shoes and make sure you have a strong story when you contact them.
Do you worry about blogs?
Taunya Renson-Martin: We worry about bad blogs that are more self-promoting than informational. We encourage our clients to consider the audience and create blog posts that someone would care enough to read in their spare time. That can be a high bar, but we need to respect our audiences.
Marc Cornelius: We write blog content for many clients and it can be a powerful complement to media relations. A blog can be a great ‘shop window’ for the quality of your products or services, customer care and your insights. Search-optimised blog posts can attract new website visitors, while existing customers can become more loyal because of the transparency and accessibility a blog creates.”
Phil Anderson: Depending on who is writing them, blogs can be very powerful so yes I do worry about them. The most powerful goal in PR is to try and secure endorsement for your clients from respected third parties such as a market analyst, academics or clients. So when one of my clients has an important announcement to make, we will approach key stakeholders who write blogs to try and convince them of the merits of my client’s announcement. As well as influencing those people who read the blog, we can also point key journalists and other stakeholders in the direction of it and hopefully influence them positively through this.
Blogs are also part of the wider development of social media and other content channels. Making sure clients are positively involved in these new and emerging communication channels is a mainstream part of modern PR.
Should business aviation companies worry about social media?
Taunya Renson-Martin: Absolutely. First of all, younger people in business aviation are already all over Social Media. That genie isn’t going back in the bottle. Second, effective Social Media needs to be integrated into the full communications mix. Many companies make the mistake of just “doing Social Media” for the sake of doing it. You have to have something to say! Start with that. Ask the key question: “Why would anyone care about this?” If you can’t answer it, you need to re-evaluate your key messaging. Then you must produce engaging content, the kind that people will want to share. Staying conservative and just tooting your own horn on Social Media isn’t going to get you anywhere. We’re in the age of infotainment!
Marc Cornelius: Social media has completely changed the dynamics of a crisis situation. Word of any aviation incident now breaks first through social channels, and its immediacy has upped the ante for business aviation, both in terms of news monitoring and how to communicate.
Social media may also need to be part of your marketing, although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Facebook is essential for many B2C companies but less so for B2B firms or those selling to the c-suite, who may be better off with LinkedIn and Twitter. Internationally, other platforms are also important, like Xing in Germany and Weibo in China. A good way to tell if you’re reaching the right audience through social media is to use it to promote your blog and downloadable content on your website. The analytics can be revealing.
Social media should only be used to convey the same core messages as traditional PR, just in a different way
Natalie Besgrove: Social media is something that has to be very carefully considered when looking after the PR for a company. Social media should only be used to convey the same core messages as traditional PR, just in a different way.
Phil Anderson: Social media provides a platform for everyone to express their views so any negative comments made here can be very damaging. Social media invariably means that organisations now have a wider range of stakeholders to manage to help promote their business, but also protect their brand.
Can companies not just do PR on their own?
Natalie Besgrove: Of course some can – depending on an organisation size. For smaller companies employing a PR in-house is not cost effective. It is a role that needs a certain skill and not a function that someone can perform when they have a spare hour.
Mark Lowe: Sure – if they have the right people and skill sets in-house. But otherwise, it’s probably advisable to work with an experienced PR consultant.
Phil Anderson: Absolutely not. Like everything, if you do something badly it can be very damaging for your brand, business as well as you personally. Journalists often complain about the poor press releases they receive or the interviews they conduct that provide no news content. If you don’t have any experience of doing PR properly and you can’t hire someone who does, you are probably better off not doing PR at all.
Taunya Renson-Martin: Some can. If they know how to dig down deep and evaluate which of the messages they have are truly interesting/engaging. If not, work with a specialized firm, like Mach Media, that does it well. Focus on selling aircraft, or charter missions, or avionics – let us take care of the marketing communications, the storytelling, the infotainment and the metrics.
Marc Cornelius: “Some companies are very successful in managing their own PR, but for others an agency can make PR more strategic and results more consistent. The competition for news coverage is fierce, so an agency’s skills and contacts can give you an edge. Furthermore, PR isn’t just about what you say, it’s also about what you do – an external viewpoint can help you take the right decision for the good of your reputation.”
If everyone knows a company does it still need PR?
Mark Lowe: Probably. Well-known companies are more likely to draw media interest. And, someone needs to manage that interest. If done constructively, it can be very beneficial. If neglected, it can go quite badly.
If done constructively, it can be very beneficial. If neglected, it can go quite badly.
Marc Cornelius: VW and BP were globally known but still needed intensive PR support for their recent crises. Less spectacularly, every business needs to stay relevant in a changing market, and PR plays a key role in being not only its mouthpiece but also its eyes and ears. A reputation needs to be constantly managed against the context in which the company operates, otherwise you can become seen as dated or out of step with the world.
Phil Anderson: You always need PR. People may know you but their perception of you may be wrong or negative or depending on the actions of your competitors, you may become less front of mind with your stakeholders.
You always need to proactively manage your brand and image, and in today’s world of both traditional and digital media and the rise of ‘fake news’, PR has never been more important.
Taunya Renson-Martin: Every company needs to manage their reputation. If everyone knows the company and something goes wrong, then everyone knows that too. Then what are you going to do?
Natalie Besgrove: Of course. The companies forward thinking enough to employ PR are usually the ones that are evolving all the time. The market needs to be informed of this and kept up with the changes that take place effecting a company’s activity.
Which campaign are you most proud of?
Marc Cornelius: “We’re obviously proud of all our client work, but a recent campaign we really enjoyed was our launch of PayNode, the world’s first online payment platform designed for business aviation (pictured). As part of the launch we decided to tell the story visually, creating powerful photos to accompany the press release. We hired a top creative photographer and spent half a day preparing the studio for the shoot, making paper planes made from bank notes and hanging them from invisible fishing lines. Our bemused clients posed amongst the planes while the camera was worked from above. The images were really striking and very different from what the media normally receives, which helped us get great coverage at NBAA and in international business aviation and fintech media.”
Phil Anderson: I’m proud of all of the campaigns I have worked on in the business aviation sector. The European launch of Jet Republic was extremely high profile and fun, and we achieved huge amounts of positive media coverage despite the fact that we did not have any aircraft. It was also very exciting to have worked on Global Jet Capital’s acquisition of the assets of GE Capital Corporate Aviation, which given the size of this was globally significant news, making it onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for example.
However, probably the most satisfying campaign was working for Beechcraft Corporation where we generated large amounts of positive media coverage across all titles for its aircraft – in particular its King Air – despite the fact the company was facing some financial challenges before it was acquired by Textron. This just shows that despite difficulties a company may be facing, if you generate a positive news angle and have strong spokespeople, the media will still use it.
Taunya Renson-Martin: The ones that contribute to delivering business results.
What sort of clients do you like dealing with?
Natalie Besgrove: Ones that have a lot going on.
Taunya Renson-Martin: The ones that “get it,” where our job is just working with them on the approach, rather than justifying the very existence of marketing/communications in the first place. The “ones” that understand there is something to be gained from working with great professionals in the marcom field. Instead of insisting on a brochure, they simply explain their business challenge, and allow us to focus on helping them to achieve their business objective; not just on delivering a nice leaflet.
The best clients are those that see you as part of their team
Phil Anderson: The best clients are those that see you as part of their team as opposed to being just the ‘agency’. If you want to get the most out of your PR agency, you should make them feel as integral to your business as your internal colleagues.
How does PR work alongside a company’s other marketing activities, such as content marketing, advertising and sponsorships?
Marc Cornelius: We have now moved beyond a time when PR was a separate silo from other marketing disciplines. We help clients with their content marketing, case studies, sponsorship and advertising too. Good storytelling is at the heart of modern marketing and that’s where the PR skill set excels.
Why should they pick you?
Phil Anderson: I would like to think that the key reason to pick me is that I am incredibly driven to succeed for my clients, but I am also strategic – there is no point securing media coverage if it does not support the business. I still get as excited today when I see an article I helped place as I did 27 years ago when I started out in PR.
I am also very results driven so I will always link performance to remuneration. PR is difficult to measure so you need to be able to commit to generating a certain volume and value of coverage.
Finally, I have a lot of experience of working in other sectors, and many of the techniques I use here to secure strong PR can be applied to the business aviation world. Given this, I am perhaps a little bit different to other PRs in the sector in that as well as focusing on the trades, I am perhaps more proactive in dealing with the wider media because of my work in other sectors means I liaise with them on a daily basis.
Taunya Renson-Martin: Well…we’re not the ones you call if you want an agency to do what you say and just make stuff.
We’re the ones you call when you have a business challenge and you need competent marketing/communications experts to devise and implement a strategy to help deliver tangible business results.
Marc Cornelius: Companies choose 80:20 because they want business aviation experts who work internationally, are creative and deliver strong results. We’re very proud to work with industry leaders and of the fact that most of our clients stay with us for years.
Natalie Besgrove: I have an aviation Sales and Marketing and Business Development background, and I have worked as the person employing PRs and public affairs specialists in the past so I feel that I have the benefit of knowing what the client needs, from being in their shoes. I also know where PR should fit in within the total marketing mix. Saying that, I do think there is enough business to go around the quality aviation PR agencies that are out there today.
Mark Lowe: I have always tried to approach media relations with transparency. When a company has something interesting to share, that’s a PR opportunity. The challenge is to prioritise and package the “news”. It requires strategic thinking, effective writing and tenacious pitching. And, good timing never hurts either!