Business jet industry fights bad press

Under attack, flight industry reaches out to the media to counter negative headlines.

Under attack, flight industry reaches out to the media to counter negative headlines

For the business jet industry, the first wave of bad press came in November when the CEOs of the big three U.S. automakers flew to the nation’s capital in three separate aircraft to testify that their industry needed a bailout to avoid bankruptcy.

The second came at the end of January when Sen. Carl Levin lambasted executives from Citigroup, which had already received a federal bailout, for approving the purchase of a $50 million corporate jet.

Then news broke that former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill used one of the bank’s jets to whisk his family to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to ring in the New Year.

When faced with that kind of negative press, the only thing to do is reach out to the media and make it clear that such abuses are aberrations, says Katie Pribyl, communications director of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

“We don’t speak for the financial industry abusing their aircraft or any other abuses,” she says. “But we do need to inform people that those aren’t representative for the industry [or] indicative of typical business jet usage.”

To get media attention, GAMA and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) have given interviews, written op-eds and distributed press releases to a host of news outlets, from national broadcasters like CBS News and National Public Radio to newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And, most recently, Cessna Aircraft Co. diverted half of its 2009 advertising budget to an all-out communications blitz.

The intent is to correct misperceptions, improve reporters’ understanding of the industry and provide context to the coverage.

Although doing so doesn’t guarantee that the industry’s perspective is accurately portrayed — or even included in the story — it provides an opportunity to educate the public about a sector few know much about.

“Did you know that 86 percent of passengers on business jets are not executives, but are mid-level employees?” asks Pribyl. “We need to let people know these things.”

She points to one recent successful pushback: an op-ed by William Garvey, editor-in-chief of Business and Commercial Aviation magazine, that ran in the Sunday New York Times on Feb 1. The editorial noted that the industry’s aircraft and systems are, for the most part, made in the United States, accounting for roughly 1 million jobs.

“This is an industry that is a net positive to the country,” adds Robert Baugniet, director of corporate communications for General Dynamics subsidiary Gulfstream. “And the lack of understanding and awareness of that is quite remarkable.”

Focus on the positives

The business jet industry has to make the public aware of its unique benefits, says Dan Hubbard, NBAA senior vice president of communication, who developed a talking-points memo showcasing the industry’s contributions and distributed it to his members.

The memo helps members who appear on local and cable news ground their message with easy-to-understand, substantive statistics. For instance, it notes that 85 percent of business jet users are small- to mid-size businesses, many of which are based in the dozens of markets across the country where commercial airlines have reduced or eliminated service. Hubbard’s memo points out that business jets service more than 5,000 airports, compared to commercial jets, which fly to about 500 locations.

But given the state of the economy, the most important message is that the business jet industry generates billions of dollars in revenue and wages, Baugniet says. “We’re one of the few industries left in America that is a net exporter of jobs,” he adds.

In addition to making the media aware of those messages, says Pribyl, it’s important to share them with legislators, since the media often follows their lead. That was certainly the case when Levin reprimanded the Citigroup executives.

Similarly, Cessna is reaching out to the media to address what it calls “widespread misinformation” about the business jet industry.

“After the testimony of the Big Three automakers, [misinformation about the industry] kind of blew up and got out of hand,” says Bob Stangarone, Cessna’s vice president of communications. “As the largest manufacturer of general aviation aircraft in the world we felt compelled to take leadership role in fighting back and countering those misperceptions.”

Cessna aims to run the ads, which seek to assure executives that “one thing is certain: true visionaries will continue to fly,” in U.S. and European newspapers, magazines and Web sites, as well as aviation trade publications.

The strategy also calls for Cessna to target messages to other audiences, such as its employees, customers and suppliers, as well as government officials and the investment community.

“We’re tweaking the message for each audience,” says Stangarone.

In addition to the ads, the communications team is reaching out to journalists at newspapers like the Wall Street Journal to offer their perspective. The efforts already have paid off with a story in Wednesday’s paper announcing the campaign’s launch.

By moving into an offensive position the company hopes to impact popular sentiment.

“The desired effect is not only reaching a wide range of publications but also to start to influence the agenda and discussion about corporate jets,” says Stangarone.

Correct inaccuracies

In a Dec. 4 letter to the association’s members, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen wrote, “NBAA staff alone can’t always respond to every negative story in every newspaper in the country, local television show, or posting on the Internet.”

Even members of the associations can’t be on constant watch to correct inaccuracies, notes Baugniet. “In some instances I’ve reached out to reporters who have written inaccurate pieces,” he says, “but you also have to know what fights to pick. If they are reasonable, I’ll talk to them. But if they’re not, I won’t waste my time since I know however I explain something it will be twisted to achieve their own ends.”

The industry has largely ignored new media to bolster its message. The reason? “We’re relatively small and don’t really have the resources,” says Pribyl.

What the industry can do — and does, she says — is provide a wealth of information. The GAMA Web site offers a slew of statistics, from white papers to press releases to general aviation data.

After all, numbers don’t lie.

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