The NRA of the Air

Chris Dancy, talented media relations staffer at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), recently moved on to the Helicopter Association International. This prompts some reflection on GA’s relations with the media. AOPA is a good exemplar for this, having long dominated the effort as “The NRA of the Air.”

I have it “from the horse’s mouth” that my friend Bill Jackman, longtime PR man at the Air Transport Association, coined that phrase about AOPA’s “take-no-prisoners” defense of GA in the 1970s-‘80s. Members loved AOPA for it. Airlines hated it as they butted heads with GA on airspace issues. AOPA’s legendary PR chief, former Hearst newspaper man (and now GAN’s own) Charlie Spence, long held that flag high with great success, as did Ed Pinto later.

With a new AOPA president and a new decade, 1991 was the time for new approaches. As I took over the PR duties, our media relations reputation would be based, I hoped, on working with the media to assure correct facts and perceptions. There was so much erroneous, even biased, reporting that my first priority was to “get the facts straight.” Then we could argue or challenge. Most times, we won over skeptical or uninformed media. Moreover, we won their allegiance and “return business” for the next time an issue, crisis or crash arose.

Reporters often don’t like PR people. In aviation, after all, the classic vision was of the 1950s PR man rushing to the crash site to paint out the airline’s name on the airplane. In manufacturer PR, “no comment” is still the usual rule on crashes. Even some top GA reporters see PR people as gatekeepers to the real people with the real answers. AOPA PR had real pilots, backed by real policy insight at hand or nearby. And over the last 20 years, staff was more experienced in TV news where much of America got its news. Here, immediate and correct answers were all-important. And today, ALL media will move elsewhere — fast — if answers are not forthcoming to feed their ever-more-hectic news cycle.

By all evidence, Chris Dancy was a classic in this vein as he worked the phones and emails. He had been DC assignment manager for NBC News Channel, the in-house service feeding all the network’s affiliates. Previously, he worked at the CBS St. Louis affiliate after a broadcast communications degree from Syracuse. My successor and former deputy Warren Morningstar, himself a TV news producer before AOPA, considered his hire of Chris Dancy one of his best moves. I just want to add my “well done” upon Chris’ departure. The #2 guy or gal doesn’t usually get much public credit.

Does that last name Dancy sounds familiar? Chris’ dad is John Dancy, a front-line NBC news reporter from 1965 to 1995. I never met him but once ended up a few seats away at The Harborside, my former hangout on Martha’s Vineyard where he was covering a presidential vacation, I guess. His generation was the bedrock of the TV news business—and they were my heroes. (An endorsement from CBS’s Bob Schieffer still holds a prominent place on my resume.)

Chris and his strong TV news background now move on to HAI, the helicopter association, where he’ll get his PR “left seat time” and plenty of new challenges. Government and media remain sharply focused on recent accidents in helicopter tour and medical evacuation flights. The harshest spotlight is currently off light planes, as in every recession. Meanwhile, helicopters are big business. (Former top AOPA exec Karen Gebhart now heads HAI business development and expositions.) Commercial helo crashes are under scrutiny and highly newsworthy as “a trend.” HAI needs that strong, enlightened response to crash coverage and policy issues. Chris is an excellent choice. He says the learning curve is steep, but there is “something new to do and learn every day.”

My friend Benet Wilson, with decades of experience at AvWeek, “The Weekly of Business Aviation,” Delta Airlines and more, picks up the torch as AOPA media director under VP Andrew Broom. Go, Benet! Beyond her print and PR career, she is strong in social media – the new game in communications that some older types (like me) aren’t up on. Despite the new mania for digital communications (or perhaps by employing it creatively), AOPA will – I trust –maintain its proud record of strong media relations, especially in breaking news/crisis communications. That’s when public attention is most focused and public opinion is made.

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.



© 2011 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

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