Confessions of an Airline PR Man

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.
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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.

Jets at Denver's former Stapleton International Airport.

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 in Denver.

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 spin 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.

Beauty in the Sky With Diamonds

Another legendary quote came a few years later from the PR rep (let's call him Jim) for a major 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).

Human Resources rep interviews applicant for stewardess job.

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 women 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 stewardesses 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 gem of an answer: "I have to admit, not all of our stewardesses are beauty contest winners."

Coffee, Tea and Press Trips

Did an airline PR guy ghost-write Coffee, Tea or Me? That was the rumor when the book -- billed as the memoirs of two airline stewardesses, supposedly co-authored by them -- came out in 1967. Well, it took 35 years, but a PR rep for a big airline finally fessed up to writing the book in his own memoirs, published in 2002.

One chapter in particular was seen as a dead give-away for the fine hand of a professional PR man. It was called "Wow. We're Going to Work a Press Trip!" and it was the stewardesses account of how the airline's PR staffers handled pressures to promote the debut of some new service.

Reporters rush to file stories after a news conference.

The promotion centered on a boozy flight set up for the press, so they could write glowing reviews of the new service and the airline. True, a lot of "reporters" showed up, but about the only writers the PR people could talk into going were hardly the media "A" list. So the two stewardesses were somewhat puzzled when they learned the mob of media guzzling drink after drink on the flight included a writer for Turtle Breeders Quarterly, the cartoon editor of Welfare Weekly, someone from a weekly paper in New Jersey, a writer for a little-known makeup magazine and several secretaries from the TV networks (so CBS, NBC and the like would show up on the sign-in-sheet passed to top management).

"What a sick way to make a living," one of the stewardesses says of the PR staffers' ploy.

Disclosure: The writer was a PR exec for five airlines over a 30-year span.

All photos by Bob Schulman.