Skift Take

Balancing the interests of the airline and the needs of the passengers who fly it every day leaves little room for error on the PR side.

Kevin Shinkle, chief communications officer of Delta Air Lines, will speak at the Skift Global Forum on October 14 and 15 in Brooklyn on the changing nature of travel public relations and communications in a digital-first world. See the complete list of speakers and topics for this year’s event.

Shinkle, a former business editor at the Associated Press, joined Delta in May 2014. One of his key projects was to transform the airline’s news site to make it a more authentic and effective vehicle not only for journalists, but for influencers and customers, as well.

Shinkle addressed some of the key drivers in the evolution of corporate communications in the aviation industry, including how to be an effective voice for an increasingly sophisticated and 24/7 audience.

Skift: Airlines have to have their communications hats on 24/7. Can you cite an example of the new ways you’ve communicated about an issue or incident this year and how Delta handled it differently than it might have done a year ago and what are the implications?

Kevin Shinkle: In June we launched the Delta News Hub. It’s a dynamic site with news every day that goes beyond the expected corporate updates and promotional announcements. We’re sharing stories that give readers a look deeper into our organization – the business and the culture. So, really everything about the way we are communicating externally has changed with this new channel that targets, first and foremost, journalists and digital influencers, but also is written in a way that we hope engages lots of audiences from consumers to future employees.

To cite a couple of specific examples: You may recall that LaGuardia airport lost power for a period of time in late July. As you can imagine, it was an evolving situation. We were watching, waiting, anticipating and fielding a lot of questions. News outlets wanted to report; customers wanted to know what to expect. We put our News Hub to work with a red alert bar at the top and updated information several times throughout the day. Not only did we have a platform for sharing technical updates, we used the Hub to tell a broader story about how Delta people were doing their best to make the situation better for our customers.

We’re also thinking about new ways to use the Hub as a means of relentless reputation management. Twice this summer we objected to the heated tone and factual content in stories about the airline industry. With the News Hub, we were able to write our own responses to the articles, debunking the premises in each with facts and figures and distribute to a public audience. The trick was to get the tone right. We didn’t want to be strident or defensive. What we wanted to do – and did effectively in my mind – was to engage in a public, fact-based conversation to tell our side of the story.

Skift: Are new communications trends better than the older ones or just different? Why?

Shinkle: I think in a lot of ways communication trends aren’t different as much as they are magnified – faster, more transparent, more complex, around-the-world and around-the-clock.

I spent years at the editor’s desk and am still relatively new to corporate communications so that gives me a slightly different perspective. My past experience with CorpComm folks often involved ignoring their emails and pitches. But I always appreciated those who were available when I needed them and those who took the time to discuss issues related to their company to provide me with the facts and context I needed to be fair and accurate. Along those lines, the blocking and tackling of corporate communications remains the same. At Delta, we focus on fostering a reputation for being responsive, even if we can’t comment or get the CEO on the phone in the next hour to meet a deadline. We’re honest, respectful and strategic.

Increasingly, though, we also have to be relentless about finding new ways to tell the stories that matter to our business. In a business that hasn’t slowed and isn’t slowing down, we have to really hone our priorities and get things done with verve and creativity. We have to foster innovation. And we must be zealous in working every day to tell our story better.

Skift: What are some of the best tools you use to monitor what people are saying about Delta and to communicate your views?

Shinkle: The news. I’m a fervent reader and I look at ten or more publications a day – mostly on my tablet. And of course we have a daily clip reporter that pulls in news from around the world, as well as key topics being discussed in social media.

At Delta one of our best tools isn’t a tool at all, but a team. We have a team of customer service representatives monitoring and responding to customers in Twitter all day, every day. They’re usually the first ones to know when something is happening and they know when to call on us.

Skift: How does competition with other airlines inform you your communications strategy?

Shinkle: It’s hard to find a more competitive group of companies than those that make up the airline industry. We compete incessantly on fares, service, routes etc. But we’re charting our own course in corporate communications here at Delta with our News Hub and the innovative steps we’re taking to improve employee communication. My energies are devoted to improving what we do every day, not monitoring what our competitors are up to.

Skift: What are a couple of communications trends that you think we may be talking about next year or the year after?

Shinkle: “Story telling” has become a bit of a cliché, but it’s only going to get more important. We all know that social media and the decline of traditional media have changed the game. At one point, nearly every metro newspaper in the country had an airlines/airport writer. Early in my career, I covered aviation at the Tampa Tribune. Now, there are just a couple of local newspapers left that have a reporter devoted to aviation. The field is left to the wires (AP, Bloomberg and Reuters) along with the Wall Street Journal and some other national publications. Others, particularly in television, cover us on an event basis (a plane is diverted, etc.)

The journalist in me is disheartened about that. The CorpComm person in me sees a great opportunity. That was the impetus for the News Hub. We didn’t want to produce a corporate marketing site. There are plenty of those. What we have sought to do is create a site that is useful for journalists – one where they can research the company and steal ideas, photos, videos or even the story itself. But we also wanted to take our story directly to customers, investors and anybody interested in aviation.

To do that effectively, we have to produce content that, if not unbiased, is as good and creative as the content you find in other forms of media. For starters, we need to have a journalist’s eye for what makes a good story; and when we do them, they must have snappy headlines, great leads and engaging nut graphs, and the right amount of context.

The strategy seems to be working. The feedback from journalists has been positive, and in some cases news web sites are using our stories almost verbatim on their digital sites. But the interesting thing is that overall readership continues to grow — far more people look at it each day than there are journalists. And this is without no significant promotion.

The need for more substantive and creative storytelling is as imperative for internal audiences as external. The research tells us people are more inclined to take recommendations from and believe stories shared by people they know. As a company of 80,000 with a distinct culture keeping employees informed and engaged is paramount. They are the ones interacting with customers every day. They are our ultimate brand ambassadors.

The bottom line is that readers, whoever they are, aren’t stupid. They are smart and discerning. They don’t want to read poorly executed material. To stand out, we must be great — whether it’s on the Delta News Hub, DeltaNet, or on the web site of their favorite news organization.

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Tags: delta air lines, public relations, sgf2015, skift global forum

Photo credit: Kevin Shinkle is senior vice president and chief communications officer of Delta Air Lines. Delta Air Lines

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