Public Relations: “The single most important promotional tool an air show has at its disposal”

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Our story concludes on a warm and beautiful Sunday afternoon up and down America’s eastern seaboard. Two air shows are taking place this particular day. Both shows have a dynamic assortment of exciting performers prepared to entertain the crowds. Each has been fortunate enough to land a military demonstration jet team. Both shows are taking place within a few miles of major metropolitan areas, each devoting identical amounts of time and money to a mix of advertising and direct marketing tactics to spread the word to a marketing radius of 100 miles.

In short, everything about the two air shows appears to be identical.

One of the shows does pretty well with its attendance. They had hoped for attendance above what they’d seen in previous years, but don’t quite get there. Even though the show’s attendance is somewhat below expectations, it is moderately successful and its organizers will ultimately rationalize the slightly disappointing attendance to either a lagging economy or to unseasonably warm temperatures.

The situation is far different for the second show. Even with the hot weather, the crowds are overflowing. Preliminary estimates indicate that attendance will exceed the previous record by more than 15 percent. Even the chalets and priority seating are completely sold out. Performers and vendors are raving that they’ve never seen such large crowds. As the show closes on Sunday afternoon, the show manager can’t stop smiling.

What can make such a difference in spectator attendance?

As a discipline, public relations is the single most powerful marketing/communications tool available to an air show. Yet — because its effectiveness is hard to quantify and because its results are sometimes intangible — many air shows do not direct enough thought and sustained resources to their public relations initiatives. While no one has difficulty appreciating the value of a front-page photograph of an air show in Friday morning’s newspaper, relatively few understand that such coverage rarely arrives spontaneously. Instead, high-profile media coverage is the result of a well-conceived, well-orchestrated plan that leverages the substantial assets and story angles that virtually every air show possesses.

The Public Relations Plan

The seeds of an effective public relations campaign are sown months before an air show ever takes place. Certainly, there are shows that benefit from a single great idea or inspired journalist that produces unanticipated, high-impact editorial coverage. But a sustained, reliable and directed public relations plan is the only way to produce strong, positive public relations benefits year after year.

Careful planning, meticulous preparation and specific goals are the keys to a successful air show public relations program: knowing which media is in the market, how they will be contacted, and which assets of an air show’s repertoire will be of particular interest to the media.  And it’s not enough to set a goal of “as much positive coverage as possible.” Which television stations will you focus on? How will you divide your attention and resources between print, television and radio? What public relations programs from your last show will you repeat? Which will you ditch? What news ideas will you try? Your public relations plan must include specific goals and a multi-faceted course of action that will help you realize those goals.

“Public relations is critical, one of the most important components of an air show,” says Harry Wardwell, executive director of the California International Air Show in Salinas. “I think it’s one of the key ingredients that has made our show successful over the course of 29 years. We make it a priority and focus on it all year long.”

The critical first step is development of a finely tuned media list within the show’s target markets. The event organizer needs to spend time thinking about where they want to get coverage by geographic market and in which medium—print, radio, television, and Internet. Next, identify the individuals within each market and each medium that might have even a small interest in covering your air show.

With strong media lists, air shows can easily and inexpensively cast a wide net to ensure that multiple personalities within every media outlet — large and small – are contacted, according to Brenda Kerfoot, director of the Dayton Vectren Air Show. “Building the list takes some time and then it takes some more time to keep it updated,” she says. “Our list encompasses Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati. What we’ve found is that it pays to be all encompassing. Sometimes the story is driven by a news director, sometimes it’s the reporter, and we’ve found even the ad sales representatives want to be on the press release distribution list. Every person you’re able to reach is one more set of eyes and ears that can help make your case [for running a story or providing coverage].”

Obtaining current contact information of individual journalists, producers, and editors is a tedious exercise, but thankfully an effort that can take place during slow times, long before the show itself is demanding something akin to full-time attention. “Sometimes, it’s going directly to the stations themselves and making sure you have the news director contact information right,” says Kerfoot. The ideal media list includes contact name, title, phone, fax, e-mail address, and news focus of the individual: entertainment, economy, sports, financial, community, or general.

The more a show is able target a reporter, editor, or producer individually, the better. Sending a press release to a general newsroom e-mail address is far less likely to get the attention of the media outlet than one that is sent directly to the individuals who will assign or cover the story. “The same can be said for newswire services,” said Kerfoot. “While using a distribution service is not a bad way to go as a supplement to efforts, going directly to the reporter, the editor, or the producer always is the preferable alternative.”

The next element of the plan is to create specific milestones for execution, laying out the steps in backward chronological order from the show. What kind of public relations work will you be doing the Friday before the show? The Monday before the show? A week, a month, six months before the show?

While the media plan must be flexible enough to adjust for specific news and announcements that take place as the show inches closer, consider the events that take place throughout the timeline that might be worthy of media attention. Apart from the days immediately before the show, some ideas include the announcement of the dates for the show itself, the addition of new performers to the air show program, site visits by performers, and partnerships with local businesses.

In general, air shows should use e-mail judiciously, sending e-mail or contacting the media only when there is legitimate news to report. When equipped with legitimate news items, it’s time to go all in with the initial message. But this process does not end when the press release is distributed. A follow-up e-mail or phone call – particularly when the story line is time-sensitive – is often the key to getting attention and, ultimately, media coverage.

The Story Angle 

The good news is that air shows present an intriguing story all by themselves, worthy of baseline media coverage merely because the event is taking place. The better news is that air shows have an array of assets at their disposal that – when leveraged and positioned effectively – can literally have reporters knocking on a show’s door for access.

What constitutes a story line? “Anything that’s new or unusual,” says Kerfoot. “Maybe they’ve never seen the Raptor. The media naturally wants something different or new. Always be searching for that. Or that personal connection. Do your research. Are there people among the performers who have local connections? The media like that connection to the community.”

Pre-season site visits by performers present an opportunity for a full-fledged media event, which can begin building momentum for the show long before the show otherwise would be on anyone’s radar. Kevin Walsh, air show director for Thunder over Michigan, held a pre-show press conference to promote the air show in Detroit and considers an interesting backdrop for the event to be a requirement. “We had a press conference at the Yankee Air Museum and it worked because we talked about the positive impact on the economy,” he says. “We got newspaper and radio coverage. For TV coverage, you need more of the exciting visuals. For instance, the arrival in the middle of the winter of Blue Angel number seven is a dynamic visual. If you don’t have that, maybe move to radio or the print. Your story line sometimes will only fit into a specific medium.”

The well-oiled P.R. machine in Salinas actually moves into motion immediately following the ICAS Convention in December. “I have a press release prepared before ICAS announcing our schedule and the performers, which is sent out immediately after the jet team schedule is announced,” says Wardwell. “I make a few phone calls to major media from Las Vegas to let them know the Salinas air show is this date and we’re going to be hosting the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds. It’s always on the news that Tuesday, ten or 11 months before the show. And it’s a big story.”

Kerfoot believes that it’s even possible to turn a negative story into a positive story with some thought. “Two years ago, the week of our show was going to be the first time during the season when we were going to hit 90-degree temperatures,” she says. “Some people wouldn’t think of the heat itself as a story. But I went out to the media and told them how we could counter-act the heat with free water stations and by telling people what they could bring to the show other than coolers. We got tons of coverage from this issue.”

While negative stories and manufactured controversy can be a show’s ally when it comes to publicity, there is nothing that any air show possesses that will grab the attention of the media on a sustained basis more than the star power of the performers and their aircraft.

Performers and Media Rides

They’re the stars of the show. They’re trained to speak with the media. They’re ready and eager to take a reporter up for an unforgettable aerobatic ride. They know about air shows, inside and out. And, oh boy, do they know how to tell the stories that reporters love to hear. Why wouldn’t every air show want to squeeze every last drop of publicity value out of performers who are trained, eager, and even paid to interact with the media?

And why would air shows use media rides for anything other than their intended purpose?

Obviously, the answer is there are times when aircraft rides are necessary as a reward for big-time sponsors or to otherwise scratch someone’s back. But, from a pure publicity perspective, air shows would be wise to find other ways to reward sponsors and reserve media rides purely for those personalities capable of delivering high-powered news coverage. What could be better than a local news anchor leading the Friday afternoon newscast enthusiastically describing the once-in-a-lifetime experience of riding in the backseat of an aircraft practicing aerobatic maneuvers with supporting cockpit video?

Nothing, says veteran performer Patty Wagstaff, who also indicates that, beyond that, shows should leverage performers in all possible ways as tools for publicity. “We know this is a big part of our job and shows can use us more than they do,” she says. “We expect a full media day and I think a lot of shows could do more with us than they do. There are all kinds of ways: autograph signing sessions, media rides, school visits.”

Wagstaff says that shows that do the best with making use of performers for getting media coverage are those that have the process totally organized and planned beforehand. “Sometimes you get out there and it’s Friday morning and everyone’s in the flight suits, but there’s no one there to direct [the media ride process]. For a lot of shows, that part often can be done better.”

“Selling” the media on the merits of engaging with performers for interviews is among the easiest of the public relations efforts in which a show will engage, particularly when the conversation can include the following question: “How would you like to take a ride in an airplane?”

Kerfoot says shows should do an inventory of performers at the show, which performers can deliver media rides, and begin taking reservations as early as possible. “We allow the media to register for credentials right on our website,” she says. “You have an idea long before the show who’s interested and who wants a ride. Dayton gets bombarded with media requests. There are always more requests for rides than we have to give out. Hence, there has to be a priority list based on the exposure. The TV stations and the paper are our first priorities, but we try to accommodate as many as we can because it generates such great coverage.”

Ryan Kern produces the Duluth Air Show Spectacular in Minnesota. From his perspective, the earlier he can showcase his performers to the public in advance of his show, the more coverage he can acquire that will positively impact spectator attendance. “We used to have the Red Barons barnstorm all the way through Minnesota,” he says. “They’d hit eight cities carrying the message that they’d be performing in Duluth two weeks later. We would send media to cities two hours away for rides. Sometimes they’d write two stories, one on the day they flew and then a completely different story two weeks later.”

It is a potentially serious error to handle this aspect of media rides in an ad hoc or casual manner. The air shows that most consistently generate strong editorial coverage employ a disciplined and extremely organized system. It is not enough for reporters and editors to be offered a media ride several weeks before the show. When a reporter has accepted an invitation to fly, it is just as important to follow up with that reporter every few days. And the air show should know who will be offered the right next if a reporter opts out. If public relations is the most powerful marketing tool available to air shows, then media rides are the most effective tool for getting positive attention from the media. So it’s important to make the best possible use of the rides available to you.

Wardwell says that shows should factor the impact performers can have on their shows from a publicity standpoint as a major consideration during the hiring process. “Specifically, I can tell you that in hiring acts, we look at the marketing and public relations we’re going to get,” he says. “Media rides are a big factor.”

Wardwell indicates this is particularly important now that the military has tightened up the criteria it uses in awarding media rides. For the Blue Angels’ part, they have shifted their focus to a “Key Influencer” program, which first and foremost demands that those who participate have the ability to deliver specific impact on their the target demographic audience of its recruitment efforts.

“We’re looking for direct access to schools and kids 18 to 25 years old, such as boy scout troop leaders, guidance counselors, anyone who really has that close tie or connection to our target audience,” says Tyson Dunkelberger, USMC, public affairs officer for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. “It can be a local person—a dean of a college or a football coach. It used to be we’d put the media in the jet. Now, it’s kind of a two-fold benefit, we get the media to cover that person’s ride and that person goes out and talks to kids about their experience.”

Kerfoot says that putting a VIP in the cockpit actually expands the opportunity for news coverage. “When the Blues were in Dayton in 2006, we were able to get Sergei Federov from the (National Hockey League) Columbus Blue Jackets a ride,” she says. “Instead of having one single media person covering the flight, we now had multiple. It reminded me of the Hollywood paparazzi. They were all over it. And this is what the media rides should do. It does take more planning, but it’s well worth it.”

Dunkelberger says this is where the interests of the air show and the interests of the Blue Angels are in perfect alignment. “Our job is to help out with the larger mission and to get the greatest amount of media,” he says. “Our measure of success is to get as many kids 18 to 25 to see what we’re doing. Hopefully, we get a number of media representatives out there to cover the ride. That really helps to promote the air show and it helps with our mission.”

How else can performers—both of the military and civilian variety—be leveraged? “Interviews obviously,” says Wardwell. “We do on-air remote interviews a week or two in advance. We’ll schedule the interview with a morning personality. The performers can call in from another air show. That’s more difficult to pull off with television, but with radio it’s pretty easy to do. At the show, do an autograph booth, an area near the media tent at the air show. Friday is press day and we feed them and give them press kits and they get an opportunity to meet with the media coordinating team.”

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Jim Cudahy
Jim Cudahy runs Stanardsville, Virginia-based Marcomm 7, a strategic planning and marketing consulting agency.