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Carr: The Sixth Estate

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) will kick off its 2008 convention with a seminar on how environmental issues are impacting business aviation.


October 8, 2008
By David Carr

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BizAv will need traditional media to help get its green message out. But that might not be enough.

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) will kick off its 2008 convention with a seminar on how environmental issues are impacting business aviation. It should be a hot ticket. So far, NBAA’s public green offensive has been thin gruel, which is not to say that the association hasn’t been busy behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, back office activity alone will not cut it. The environment has grown into a motherhood issue, susceptible to well-intentioned but unworkable solutions, and thirsty for transparency. It is not enough for aviation to be green; the sector must also be seen to be green.
The statistics are boilerplate: aviation’s contribution to greenhouse gases will increase from two to three per cent by 2050 if engine and airframe manufacturers were to suddenly drop what they have been doing for the last 40 years, and that is building cleaner, quieter and more efficient airplanes. Business aircraft produce less than 1.5 per cent of all aviation CO2 emissions, yet risk becoming the Achilles Heel of corporations anxious to showcase their green street cred.

It is dangerous to ignore public opinion, especially when governments around the world want to ride the public to a stream of new green taxes also intended to re-engineer social policy. The European Union seeks to tax aviation out of business on routes less than 500 kilometres, causing low-cost airlines to cry foul. Liberal leader Stephane Dion positions his Green Shift as a tool to cut poverty as well as emissions. Can he do both? As Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the IATA said, taxes do not cut emissions.

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The difficulty for aviation is it has a positive environmental story to tell with not much outer success telling it. At the Canadian Business Aviation Association convention this summer it was suggested that greater resources must be poured into promoting business aviation’s green credentials in the traditional media. That is important, but large chunks of the audience are also looking elsewhere for their information fix.

“If you don’t communicate with people using the tools they choose to use, then you don’t communicate effectively,” said Dave Fleet, a senior consultant with Thornley Fallis, a Canadian public relations and marketing agency that specializes in so-called social media tools such as blogs, podcasts, online networks, etc.

If traditional print media is the fourth estate and television (with apologies to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) the fifth, then it follows that online or social media has become the sixth. And what a powerful estate it has become, not just with teenagers and basement bloggers. Approximately 60 per cent of YouTube and Facebook users are over 35.

A typical social media subscriber has a tin ear for corporate-speak, is more likely to research what others are saying about a product or claim and has quite the reach to broadcast both positive and negative. “If you start to use social media tools with the aim of just getting a message out, you will likely fail,” Fleet pointed out. “Companies are much more likely to succeed if they approach social media tools with the aim of engaging people in addition to their traditional approaches.”

Dell Computers relied on these tools to reverse a storm of negative publicity in 2005, gathering suggestions from customers and conducting a proactive outreach campaign on blogs that mentioned Dell. By responding directly and transparently to customers, Dell was able to drive negative mentions of the company from 49 per cent of all mentions to 22 per cent.

Business aviation’s larger cousins on the commercial side have also tapped into the medium. Southwest used its Nuts About Southwest site to defuse the infamous mini-skirt affairs, where a passenger was denied boarding because her hemline was too high. JetBlue uses Twitter, an increasingly popular third-party site to post updates, travel tips and replies to customer questions.

The trick, according to Fleet, is to establish a presence before it is needed and to avoid turning off the audience by using the tool to exclusively pitch a product or the corporate message. “Companies need to build a presence over time in order to build trust and awareness,” he added.

Social media is in its adolescence and easy to dismiss as a consumer rather than an industry communication tool. But as the lines between traditional and online media blur, social media is a stage where an industry that remains low hanging fruit for environmentalists and regulators alike, must be a player.

David Carr can be reached at davidjcarr@sympatico.ca .


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