This Special Guest Column by Amy Howell appeared in the Commercial Appeal on December 6, 2012.
“A lot of negative energy is being spent in Memphis on hammering Delta Air Lines over its high fares and continued cuts in service at Memphis International Airport.
While efforts such as the new “Runway Robbery” billboard campaign may raise awareness of the high ticket prices and diminished service and could help apply pressure for recruiting other airlines, I believe they are bad PR for our city.
Delta Air Lines is a business whose ultimate goal is to make money and be a dominant player in the airline industry. The reasons it has been able to control our market are perhaps more complex than we know. However, Delta is not the problem. The problem is that for whatever reasons Memphians do not have choices and competition for flights into and out of Memphis International.
In business, a successful company’s brand is developed over time through deliberate strategies and key messages. In the absence of a deliberate strategy, a company’s image can be defined by issues, public perception and the lack of clear vision and communication. It’s what I call letting someone else tell your story instead of telling it yourself.
We need a clear vision and strategy for our airport. What is happening in the void is that the critics of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority and the airport’s management are telling the story — in the media, on billboards and through social media. If I were in charge of public relations for our airport, here are a few things I would recommend to its leadership:
1) Create a positive, comprehensive, long- and short-term plan for the airport using key resources (both private and public). The plan should be accountable, measurable and project positive financial outcomes for progress in economic development. It would include recommendations for difficult decisions and changes in management and operations that may not be politically comfortable in the short term, but would be good for Memphis and Shelby County over the long term.
2) Communicate this vision and plan and get as many people as possible to help carry the banner for its message; this would involve city, county and regional governments, the Memphis Regional Chamber, the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and the business community at large. I would run this effort like a United Way campaign on steroids, leaving no stone unturned and ensuring that the entire choir sings from the same hymnal page.
3) Use good PR to further the message. Employ the Internet and social channels to help tell the good stories about Memphis that can help us when people search the Web for news and information. Create an “airport good news” PR machine and be vigilant about promoting this news consistently and broadly.
And for the community at large, I have four other pieces of advice:
1) Subscribe to the “perceptions are reality” theory — because it works. Memphians are what we say we are — in the press, at our City Council meetings, on Twitter, Facebook and the blogs. If we want to be perceived as a city with great choices, great people, great opportunities, we must reflect it.
2) Ditch the negative. Outsiders are looking in at Memphis. If we can’t move forward — by agreeing to disagree at times — we will be left behind by more progressive, forward-thinking, open-minded cities. Negative campaigns make us look small-minded. How many great cities do you know that have become successful by slinging mud and pointing fingers?
3) Share and communicate Memphis’ mission/vision/brand to the world. We can’t expect to have a strong message about the airport if it doesn’t fit hand in glove with the message about our city. The campaign has to be developed around positivity, rather than bringing up negative connotations that we as a city are trying to move away from. A national perception, for example, is the violent crime rate in Memphis; why should we develop a campaign that furthers and gives unnecessary merit to that reputation? Rather than using negative billboards to call attention to what’s wrong, we should be putting billboards up about what’s right.
4) Stand up and stand out. We need businesses and individuals who will go on record and up to bat for our city. Anonymous campaigns undermine trust.
Finally, I think we must be a city more tolerant of differing opinions. While I may not agree with everything a person says, this doesn’t mean I don’t respect him or her and won’t listen to another point of view. We need more embracing of the “let’s agree to disagree, but we are all in it together” mentality.
Vibrant cities have busy airports and I believe our airport is our most important economic driver. Businesses, both large and small, depend on a viable airport, not only for expansion purposes, but also for recruiting and retaining talent. A strong campaign to promote airline and flight choices in Memphis impacts us all and should be one of the top priorities of our city and community leadership. Negative campaigns are not the solution.”