Public Relations for air ambulance companies
Nimble tactics and long-term thinking are vital for air ambulance operators seeking to build and protect their image. When all is going well, proactive public relations (PR) can be a vital image-building tool for air ambulance operators. And as Robin Gauldie found out, when things go wrong, adept reactive PR can fend off reputational damage
Promoting a good news story should be easy. ‘Emergency medical heroes in mercy dash’ plays well, especially in local media. And in quiet times, keeping up a steady drip feed of less dramatic positive stories and photo opportunities is equally important, according to PR gurus.
“Air ambulance operators have a unique credibility and opportunity to build positive relationships with media before those relationships are tested or needed during a crisis,” said Josh Weiss, President of 10 to 1 Public Relations and previously Director of Public Relations for Rural/Metro, a major US EMS provider. “Companies should do more to make themselves available to reporters and to share good news stories whenever the opportunity arises, no matter how small or minor they may seem to the company.
“The most positive, easiest-to-get stories to build public confidence and goodwill are the opportunities most often ignored by companies,” Weiss said. “Did your air ambulance company just reach a milestone like one million miles travelled or a thousand patients transported? Put out a press release. Did a patient come back to thank the crew that transported them? Invite the media to witness the reunion.”
Show and tell
“Do you have a new piece of equipment? Offer a show and tell and celebrate a ribbon cutting where you invite local leaders like elected officials, public safety leaders and hospital leaders,” Weiss said.
Maintaining a steady stream of regular news stories is important in building a brand and a presence, agrees Alison Chambers, owner of Emerald Media, a British public relations company specialising in aviation, which lists German operator FAI Air Ambulance among its clients. “Ad-hoc clients often ask us to prepare one-off press releases. In reality, the success of such projects isn’t always high. It is better to work on a regular programme of press releases and editorials across the year. It builds brand and momentum, and building and maintaining a network of media contacts and connections is vital. Journalists like to know they can reach out and receive prompt feedback from a trusted source,” Chambers told ITIJ. (Amen – Ed.)
Every picture tells a story
Traditional media still has its uses, though, and powerful images can sell a positive story to editors. “Press releases continue to be an important mainstay of an aviation PR toolkit, as does quality imagery,” says Alison Chambers. “Accompanying imagery is increasingly important in telling a story and is always more likely to get media coverage. Video footage is also becoming increasingly important in an online world. Being able to demonstrate your product or service via your website or social media feeds can be very powerful.”
Chambers added: “Relevant editorial is equally an effective tool. Thought leadership pieces or question-and-answer interviews in specialist titles can be powerful vehicles to get a message across.”
Clients should also make the most of value-added advertising opportunities such as advertorials. “PR should be part of any good marketing mix. The combined effect of advertising, sales and marketing initiatives together with a good PR programme is far more effective than any one of these on its own.”
Keeping the PR role in-house may be a false economy, according to Alison Chambers. “The value of an external PR consultancy is its ability to be impartial and offer more creative and specialist advice,” she said. “A dedicated PR agency will often have years of experience with a range of clients offering a superior breadth of expertise.
“A PR consultancy is also more likely to hold a network of media contacts that have been built up often over decades, and will have tried-and-tested expertise for dealing with crises such as aviation incidents and accidents.”
Trust, in fact, comes into play in more than one way. Patrick Schomaker, Head of Sales and Marketing for European Air Ambulance, pointed out that ‘without the trust of clients – whether insurance and assistance companies, governments and NGOs, corporations or individuals – an air ambulance company simply doesn’t stand a chance against its competitors’. He added: “Good PR management helps us build our image and profile on an ongoing basis, getting the message out there that clients can trust us and rely on the services we offer. Having a good reputation matters immensely, but reputation alone isn’t enough – it has to be backed up by demonstrable success stories not just in terms of the missions we fly, but also the development of services, industry recognition, and ongoing investment in staff and equipment, and this is where our PR messaging is so important.”
Air ambulance operators have a unique credibility and opportunity to build positive relationships with media before those relationships are tested or needed during a crisis
“Social media is increasingly important as many [operators] media are turning to this as their primary source,” Chambers told ITIJ. “For clients, the ability to connect and engage with customers, prospects and professionals on a regular basis is extremely useful. Having a presence and using it to its best advantage across the different platforms helps to build a brand.”
Jeremy Parkin, owner of Parapex Media, a PR company that specialises in reputation management on social media for general aviation and rotorcraft companies, concurs.
“If your target audience is business-to-business (B2B), then you should be posting to LinkedIn at least once a week. Consider sponsored posts on successful social feeds like HeliHub.com,” Parkin advised.
Just the facts, please
No amount of glowing PR will cover up a poor record, though. Travel insurance and assistance companies are always aware of their duty of care consideration. They will carry out due diligence procedures that will reveal any blots on an air ambulance provider’s record, as James Page, Chief Administration Officer and Head of Assistance and Claims, AIG Travel, points out. “We make decisions based on clear, fact-based metrics,” Page told ITIJ. “Less tangible criteria, such as media coverage or publicity, are less of a factor in our decision-making process.”
AIG Travel looks for criteria that it can easily measure, Page says. He cites four key areas for consideration. “Does the provider have a good safety record, or are they accident prone? We’ll ask them about any safety incidents over the past five years and have our aviation team conduct independent research with queries across the [US] Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies to verify.
Having a presence and using it to its best advantage across the different platforms helps to build a brand
“We need to know if the provider has a high quality, reliable, professional medical team, so we’ll start by requesting CVs for each team member and verify by running our own checks on those individuals.
“Availability of aircraft is obviously critical, because we usually need to request an aircraft with very little notice, so we’re often looking for providers with more aircraft, more options and more availability.
“It’s important to us to have a provider with strengths in co-ordination and communication. We’re looking for a partner that’s really good at managing and providing information flow, so that we know exactly what’s going on at all times, and can accordingly report up the chain,” Page concluded.
When a mission goes fatally wrong, reporters will seek statements from relatives of victims. News media will seize on any shortcomings revealed by accident investigators, so air ambulance companies need to be sure their record on anything from maintenance to crew hours is squeaky clean.
“When it comes to ‘bad news’ stories, there are some specific guidelines which will help a company manage a crisis,” Josh Weiss said. “Have one designated spokesperson and don’t let anyone else answer questions. The company needs a consistent voice.
“If you made a mistake, the sooner you admit it, the more quickly you can move on. If it’s going to come out eventually, better it come out quickly,” he added. Preparing for a worst-case scenario is useful too.
“Pre-write answers to questions you expect to get and have company leaders and lawyers approve the statements in advance. Then, if the actual media emergency occurs, you have 90 per cent of your response already written and approved – allowing you to update the answer to the specific scenario and respond quickly and professionally.”
No amount of glowing PR will cover up a poor record
Emergency medical transport carries inherent and significant risks, and when you’re dealing with patients whose lives are in the balance, with complicated missions spanning continents and time zones, there is of course a chance that something may go wrong. Patrick Schomaker said: “We are always honest about [this risk] in our messaging, but we also make clear that we do everything that can be done to minimise the risks. Thankfully, things don’t go wrong often – but when there is a problem, it helps to reinforce the message that aeromedical transport is a frontline service where a situation can develop that is beyond the control of even the most experienced operators. PR allows us to get that out there to mitigate any damage while protecting our reputation.”
Air ambulance operators must also have a strategy for dealing with negative publicity that is less dramatic, but arguably more damaging in the long term. Such everyday PR tasks include justifying themselves to a media that pounces on stories about high executive salaries and huge bills to patients.
Josh Weiss believes savvy operators can exploit a good working relationship with the media to explain their side of the story. “As you build up general goodwill, you will create openings to create more strategic stories that can educate the public and explain more complex issues. Yes, medevac flights are expensive – but when was the last time you explained why it’s so expensive?” Weiss asked.
The question of whether or not air medical operators should do their own PR, or work with a professional, is really unanswerable – everyone has their skillset, and if you don’t have someone on your team who can manage a good relationship with the media, whether B2B or direct to consumer, then it’s worth considering getting a third party in. However, as Schomaker pointed out, ‘no-one knows your business better than you do – your strengths, your ethos, your methods, your staff’. This insider knowledge can give your company a very real chance of improving relatability and ultimately, trust. ■