What to do?
It’s the mid-70s, and I’m the public relations man for a Denver-based airline. I’ve been told by the top brass that if the press asks about a certain matter, not to admit anything. I think “finesse it” was the way they wanted me to handle it. Sure, like I’d finesse a charging bull.
What got the brass all worked up? It seems the Civil Aeronautics Board (which regulated the airlines until 1978) has decided to crack down on “discrimination” by the carriers. They’ve just levied a hefty fine on Pan Am for -- gasp! -- handing out roses to the airline’s female passengers. (Not giving anything to male passengers was a big no-no, the CAB ruled, constituting preferential treatment.)
Next on the discrimination front, the agency is frowning on a special perk offered to first-class and other premium passengers: the airlines’ supposedly non-existent VIP lounges. (Just about all airlines had such rooms, but kept them hush-hush until the doors opened later on to anyone willing to pay to get in.)
My day between a rock and a hard place came when we had to cancel a flight from Denver to Jackson Hole, Wyoming – with Monaco’s Princess Grace on it. Of course we put her in our phantom VIP room.
The princess waited out the next flight to Jackson Hole by watching the 1976 Olympics on the lounge’s TV set. Fourteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci had just scored an historic perfect 10 on the uneven bars when the Associated Press called me to see how long the princess was going to be delayed. Then the reporter – either unwittingly or otherwise -- asked this loaded question: “Are you giving her any special treatment while she’s waiting?”
There’s no way I’d lie about it, but to admit we had a room exclusively for VIPs would be on the newswire in minutes. And right after that in the papers. And then for sure we’d get a big fine. And then I’d likely be out of a job.
So I came up with this gem that’s since been told over many PR campfires: “Well, let’s just say we didn’t treat her differently than any other princess.”
The reporter chuckled and ended the interview. “Good quote,” he said.
Another legendary quote came a few years later from the PR rep (let’s call him Jim) for a well-known airline based in Miami. The burning issue then had switched from special treatment for special passengers to preferential hiring practices by the airlines – also good for big fines, but from the U.S. Department of Transportation (after the demise of the CAB).
Now, Jim’s airline had long been known for its gorgeous stewardesses (as flight attendants were called back then). Jim knew it was just a matter of time before a reporter asked something like: “Is it true your airline just hires good-looking gals for stewardess jobs?” Well, he could answer that by saying, “No, looks have nothing to do with our job requirements.” The trouble is, if they saw that answer in the paper, the airline’s stewardesses would think their company was saying they weren’t very attractive.” And if Jim responded this way: “Yes, we have the best looking flight attendants in the industry,” he’d be admitting his airline was guilty of preferential hiring.
So when the question finally was asked, Jim came up with this classic answer: “I have to admit, not all of our stewardesses are beauty contest winners.”
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and “Marsha” is starting her new job heading up PR at the headquarters of a popular airline on the West Coast. She’s been there for just three days when she hears police sirens and then sees a bunch of cops running down the hall toward the Board Room. A few minutes later, the cops leave with a naked man in tow.
What happened? It seems a senior company officer has gone beserk, ripped off his clothes and was, er, abusing himself before he was hauled away.
Next, Marsha gets a surprise visit from her new boss, the airline’s CEO. “I don’t want to see a word about this in the papers,” he tells Marsha. “Yee gads, she thinks, there’s no way the L.A. Times and the other metros are going to let this slide by.” She imagines the headline: “Top Airline Exec Goes Bonkers in Board Room.”
There’s only one way this won’t get into the papers, and that’s if by some miracle the media doesn’t hear about the incident.
Marsha must have had angels on her shoulders, because not an inkling of what happened showed up in the press. A few days later the CEO came by her office again. “Good work,” he told Marsha. “I knew we made the right choice when we brought you aboard.”
Disclosure: The writer was a PR exec for five airlines over a 30-year span.
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