January 14, 2011

The people in business aviation know the many benefits a local airport confers on the surrounding community. But, when airport officials want to reach out to the community, in order to create the goodwill to serve the airport in both good times and bad, how can they ensure their approach is effective?

“Most airports are municipally owned,” observes Robert Mark, business pilot, NBAA member and the CEO of business strategy firm CommAvia, based in Evanston, IL. “That means the city or the county has some input into how the airport is operated, budget issues, that sort of thing. That alone means you need to reach out beyond the fence of the airport.”

CommAvia is dedicated to helping the aviation industry tell its story. Among its clients are airports in Addison, TX and Whitman Field in Oshkosh, WI.

After determining whether community outreach can help an airport (hint: he says it almost invariably will), Mark says you must figure out who you’re trying to reach.

“Who are the stakeholders?” he asks. “I think that’s who we want to think about.”

Among those stakeholders, Mark says, are the people who actually run the airport: the local or state governments, which are responsible for funding and operating the airport itself. But there are also state and regulatory agencies, airport tenants, the media and, perhaps most importantly, members of the community surrounding the airport.

Mark says the airport’s message can – and perhaps should – be modulated to best reach each of these constituencies.

Communicating the value of an airport to the surrounding community is more than an economic message, according to Mark. But it is especially difficult for airports to get that message across to the non-flying public because the airport is, from the outside, such a foreboding place.

“Let’s face it,” Mark says, “When you go to an airport, do you see a friendly atmosphere? No. You see barbed-wire fences. You see big signs that say: ‘Stay Out.’ They don’t make it look terribly inviting.”

So, in the process of modulating the story for the general public, Mark suggests airports do all they can to counter the sense of foreboding people might perceive as they view the facility from street level. Part of the message, he says, is certainly economic in nature. The airport is an economic engine for the entire community, creating jobs and opportunity. But its worth is much more than that. The airport is a vital tool for the community in times of trouble or even disaster.

Once airport management has decided that outreach is a valuable concept, once the key constituencies have been identified and messages to each of those constituencies have been painted in broad strokes, Mark says the messages themselves are only part of the equation. The other part – perhaps the most vital part – is listening.

“The fact that they have a person or persons who will just listen to them – that makes all the difference in the world,” says Mark.

The listening aspect of community outreach makes social media invaluable to airports and their tenants. Twitter and Facebook, for example, allow for two-way communication. In times of trouble, Mark says, those media are equally important because they become familiar avenues of information dissemination.