American Airlines using podcasts to reach staff—and the public

The company is blurring the lines between internal and external communication, and it’s embracing the risks that come with honest, open, conversational messaging.

American Airlines plane


U.S.-based airlines have encountered large patches of rough PR air lately.

Every week, it seems, brings viral news of the latest terrifying, zany or cringeworthy incident in the sky. Commercial air travel has become perhaps the most fraught industry of all, which makes controlling the message of utmost importance.

American Airlines has adopted podcasting to communicate with its 122,000-plus employees, as well as with the public. It’s an engaging medium that lends itself to explaining policy changes, navigating turbulent topics and providing a glimpse into strategic direction, but are American’s audio efforts taking off?

CNBC published a story this week delving into the airline’s “Tell Me Why” podcast, which is knocking down walls between the traditionally siloed worlds of internal and external communication.

American posts episodes on its Jetnet intranet, but the company decided to make the show available on iTunes and Soundcloud as well. CNBC’s piece quotes Ron DeFeo, American’s VP of global communications, as saying, “There really is no such thing as internal communications anymore.”

Routes, fuel, fares and emotional support peacocks

There’s risk inherent in extemporaneous podcast chatter—especially compared with a heavily edited press release or blog post. However, rolling the dice with a more engaging form of communication can reap rich publicity rewards.

American’s latest podcast episode detailed the company’s new stance on “emotional support animals,” a trend that the company says has skyrocketed in recent years. Just about every major news outlet in the U.S. has reported on the policy shift.

Now, flyers who want to bring their beloved squirrel, peacock or mini horse aboard will have to provide a doctor’s note 48 hours in advance of a flight. However, those craving comfort from their special goat, insect, hawk, hedgehog, insect, snake, rat, sugar glider or beloved tusked beast are now out of luck, per the new regulations. Thanks to the airline’s podcast, now you know.

Of course, not every episode tackles such wild subject matter nor garners widespread coverage. As CNBC reported:

“Tell Me Why” topics have included American’s rationale behind adding certain routes, the introduction of no-fills basic economy fares, or why it decided not to hedge fuel even as costs rose. Other subjects have included more workaday issues that would be familiar to many employees at a large company, like contributing to a retirement fund and wellness rewards.

A February episode pulled back the curtain on American’s logistics and operational strategy. Vasu Raja, the airline’s vice president for planning, offered frank answers to employee questions regarding how the company chooses aircraft for certain flights, as well as straight talk regarding “why they’ve scaled back so many destinations from New York.”

Another February episode revealed that the company believes “seat-back TVs will be obsolete in three to five years.” (Parents, marshal your screen arsenal accordingly.)

American interviewed an outside communications professional to gather a bit of external perspective and insight in March.

Overall, “Tell Me Why” offers a nice mix of topics, and the program gives a good balance of news, entertainment, employee-centric Q&A and strategic direction. American appears to be successfully walking the line between appealing to its employees and informing the public. However, podcasting takes time to produce, edit and disseminate, which makes it less than ideal for crisis communications—something every airline in the world should be well-versed about.

Podcasting tips and tactics

You don’t have to work for a high-flying corporation to create an effective, thriving podcast.

Whitney Jennings, host and editor of Stern Strategy Group’s “Minds Worth Meeting” podcast, suggests the following tips to get your show off the ground:

  • Assemble a “pod squad” of people with varied strengths and expertise. You’ll need someone with expertise in IT to set up the hardware, a marketing person to design the format and messaging of the show, and a PR pro to help promote it.
  • Use high-quality equipment to record your voices. I recommend a Yeti microphone, pop-filter and headphones. We use Skype to connect with remote guests, and we use Audacity to record and edit.
  • When you’re trying to get co-worker buy-in, seek their input for things like logo design and intro sounds.
  • Seek guests you have access to. We tapped into our own clients with niche expertise as guests. Prior to interviewing, we researched trending and relevant topics for discussion and tested the equipment. (We work in an office, not a soundproof room, so we minimized sound by letting colleagues know there was a recording session in progress.)
  • When it comes to editing your sessions, teach everyone on your pod squad how to use the software. Podcasts are not a one man/woman show, and it could be the difference between launching the show in one month versus three.
  • Invest in Ian Robinson’s Udemy podcasting course.

Alessandra Colaci, founder of Influence Buzz, says you should treat your podcast launch like a TV show. She advises:

The key when you first launch a podcast is to start building awareness before your first episode. You can use teasers about the launch date, and also include images of upcoming guests. Reach out to potential promotional partners to see if they can help you spread word about the podcast.

Production and audio quality are important, but they should not be a hindrance to getting started. Shows often evolve over time in terms of the quality and the format. Investing in a decent starter microphone can be as little as $50.

Take a cue from how companies like Netflix promote upcoming season premieres and episodes. They use clips, get fan reactions, and make bite-sized content pieces from each episode. With your podcast, create similar content such as videos that are animated text from a quotable moment, graphics that highlight the topic, or an image with a review from a listener.

As for whether a podcast is right for you and your company, it depends. Donna Papacosta says to first consider:

  • Who are you trying to reach?
  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • How will you measure success?

Answer those questions, and you’re ready for podcast takeoff.

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