Training Pilot Spokespersons


By John Mazor, Senior Communications Specialist
Air Line Pilot, May 2004, p.22

One of ALPA’s principal missions is to serve as the voice of airline pilots, communicating their views to the outside world. The issues and the target audiences vary widely, but the purpose is to inform others as part of ALPA’s pursuit of the goals and needs of its members. Whether lobbying Congress for (or against) some piece of legislation, presenting pilot views to the FAA on a safety issue, or bargaining for a new contract, the Association works to speak authoritatively for the interests of airline pilots.

Whenever you see a member of the Association quoted in the news media as an ALPA pilot spokesperson, he or she probably has received some form of instruction from the Association’s Communications Department.

A basic rule of effective communication is that the speaker must be credible. So when the time comes for speaking out on an issue important to airline pilots, no one carries more credibility than a real, live, honest-to-goodness airline pilot.

Which is why, with rare exception, ALPA testimony at congressional hearings is presented by pilots. Whenever possible, meetings with the FAA are conducted with one or more pilots in the room. And negotiating committees are made up exclusively of pilots.

Given the proven effectiveness of having pilots speak for pilots, when ALPA wants to deal with the news media, a pilot serves as the spokesperson whenever feasible.

That’s not to say that having a pilot spokesperson answer every news media call is possible. ALPA’s Communications Department has a team of highly experienced communications specialists who routinely talk to reporters. However, pilots do want to see pilots speaking for them—it goes over better with the public as well as with ALPA members.

Made, not born

Effective news media spokespersons, like good pilots, are made, not born. They are created through training.

Yes, innate aptitudes help; but the physical skills that make a good "stick and rudder" pilot don’t automatically qualify an individual to operate an FAR Part 121 aircraft. Nor does having "the gift of gab" automatically make someone an effective spokesperson. In fact, if not brought under control, it’s actually a potential liability.

ALPA has been providing news media training to pilots for nearly two decades, with hundreds of pilots receiving some form of training. Whenever you see a member of the Association quoted in the news media as an ALPA pilot spokesperson, he or she probably has received some form of instruction from the Association’s Communications Department.

Training consists of 1 or 2 days of classroom instruction and practice interviews. Most training sessions are given in ALPA’s Herndon, Va., office, where the Association is able to call on the talents of Gene Morrill. Before he recently retired, Morrill was the news media instructor for the AFL-CIO and has trained thousands of union spokespersons in the art of advocating labor issues to the news media. He focuses primarily on techniques for conducting television interviews, because that is the most difficult form of interview to master. Staff members of ALPA’s Communications Department round out the sessions with information on communications theory, ALPA procedures, and details on dealing with other forms of news media.

A constant theme throughout the training is the need for proper preparation, and learning techniques to avoid a "crash and burn" interview. By applying the basic principles learned in news media training, pilot spokespersons learn how to assert control without forfeiting the opportunity to get ALPA views in the news.

Theory and protocols are essential, but many students rate the practice interviews as the most productive part of the training. At least two interviews are conducted each session. Every interview is taped and played back for a critique. If classroom instruction is the communications equivalent of aviation ground school, practice interviews are the simulator training. Communication, like flying, is best learned in the doing.

Who gets training?

ALPA provides news media training to two general groupings of pilots.

Most training sessions are given at the request of the master executive councils for pilots who will serve as their spokespersons on labor issues. Trainees may include MEC officers, a communications chairman and vice-chairman, and sometimes a spokesperson for each domicile. Such requests usually are made in anticipation of difficult contract negotiations. Labor negotiations usually spotlight issues that require careful and effective explanations to the public.

For these trainees, news media training will focus on responding to "hardball" questions such as pilot compensation, claims of financial difficulties at the airline, and negotiating goals. When appropriate, Communications Department staff also will help in discussing issues development and the best ways to frame these issues. One slip of the lip in an interview can send to the public, to company management, and to other members a message that can undo weeks of careful strategizing at the bargaining table.

Communications skills, like flying skills, get rusty if not constantly exercised. An MEC will sometimes request training for pilots who already have undergone a training session. If anyone should doubt the need for this recurrent training, we always get at least one repeat pilot trainee who confides, "You taught me not to do that last time, and I still did it again!"

The other pilots who receive news media training are those who attend the Safety Two school offered by ALPA’s Engineering and Air Safety Department. Safety Two is a form of graduate study for ALPA members who have completed the basic safety school and who are expected to move into positions of higher responsibility within the ALPA safety structure. The ability to communicate pilot views on safety issues is considered essential to their ability to function as effective leaders. Training is given on the last day of the 4-day school. Labor issues are not a factor, so instruction is slanted toward developing messages related to safety items.

A certain portion of Safety Two graduates will never be called upon to give a news media interview; but such training brings both indirect and direct benefits.

The indirect benefit is giving ALPA safety advocates better skills in promoting ALPA safety views. At each Safety Two session, I always get one or two pilots who tell me that they hope they never have to talk to a reporter, but the techniques they learned there will help them in communicating their issues to their primary audiences such as the FAA and the NTSB.

A more direct benefit is having a trained spokesperson in the pilot group if an accident occurs. An NTSB accident hearing is primarily a news media event. An essential part of ALPA’s strategy for covering an NTSB hearing is to have a pilot spokesperson available throughout the proceedings to talk to reporters. The availability of a trained pilot spokesperson from the affected airline is a definite plus in educating reporters and providing quotable quotes as the hearing progresses.

Coaching and counseling

Communications Department help doesn’t end when trainees catch their flights home. Each MEC has a communications specialist assigned to it, either in the field or in Herndon. Planning and prevention is the name of the game in communications. We spend countless hours counseling and coaching MECs and their spokespersons, regardless of how well-trained or experienced they are at news media relations.

Much of this activity concerns how to handle individual calls from reporters. That kind of support usually is pretty straightforward and relatively easy to provide. At a higher level, ALPA’s Communications Department also helps MECs develop their communications strategies to achieve broader goals.

For example, a pilot group approaching negotiations will need a comprehensive program for communicating to a wide range of audiences. Planning and budgeting a communications campaign is neither simple nor intuitive. In addition to basic services such as developing and procuring items like bag tags and buttons, communications specialists help the MEC integrate their messages into a seamless spectrum to reach audiences that include their own members, company management, the public, and the news media.

News media training is just one part of the overall context of ALPA support to pilots in communicating their views to various audiences for various goals, but it is an essential ingredient to fulfilling the need for pilots to speak with a unified and effective voice to all the audiences that can affect pilots’ welfare and profession.