Case Study

Case Study: Improving AirMall's Public Perception

Post by
Karen Robinson

AirMall Maryland

AirMall Maryland, the concessions developer at Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport, contacted Clapp360 to help mitigate a bad public perception and to develop a positive feeling about the organization with the public, politicians and partners. At the time, Unite Here, a foodservice union attempting to organize at BWI, had been blasting AirMall in the media, on site at BWI and with elected officials over employee wages, even though AirMall was not involved in hiring, firing, scheduling or setting wages.

Image result for AirMall Maryland

Clapp360's job was to create a voice for AirMall Maryland in the local media to preserve AirMall’s reputation and retain its state contract. This was accomplished not only by addressing the union issue in front of key audiences, but also by proactively pitching “feel good” stories about AirMall’s brand and positioning AirMall and AirMall BWI’s head as a business leader in Maryland.

Challenges:

  • Our research on past media coverage concluded that AirMall often refrained from commenting on news stories, allowing the union to define AirMall in the media and perpetuate inaccuracies about AirMall’s role at BWI.
  • The difference between a concessions developer and a concessions operator can be difficult to understand from an outsider’s perspective, but a very important distinction for the argument Clapp Communications had to make in the media.
  • There was no general public awareness of the AirMall business model.
  • There was little political understanding of the positive attributes of AirMall’s business model.
  • House Bill 725 would require employers operating a food, beverage, or retail business within the Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) to pay their employees a wage equal to the average wage of Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) employees in the lowest paid job classification. The provisions of this bill blatantly interfered with the existing State contract that conditions AirMall does not set wages, and would put AirMall merchants in an impossible position of paying inflated wages and the requirement for goods to be sold at street pricing.
  • A governor with presidential aspirations who would need to appear pro-union.

Solution:

  • Correct messaging around AirMall, minimum wage discourse, and House Bill 725.
  • Clarify messaging regarding the positives of an AirMall shopping experience.
  • Highlight that the developer model is good for the community and state—authentic shopping experience, street pricing, and tenant manages own wages and employee experience.
  • Create feel good stories about the benefits AirMall offers to tenants’ employees.
  • Raise the profile of key executives in the media via features (Baltimore Business Journal; Baltimore Sun).
  • Target the local community, business community and elected officials through press releases, letters to the editor, pitch letters for exposé pieces, bylined articles and executive profiles to garner print, television and radio coverage.

Results:

  • AirMall celebrated 10 years at BWI in 2014. Clapp360 pitched the story to local media to celebrate the milestone. We wanted this piece to be more than an anniversary acknowledgement – the goal was to make the public aware of all the positive changes since AirMall became the concessionaire.  
  • Clapp360 connected the experiences that make traveling through BWI great back to AirMall and developed press stories with that focus.  
  • A wage survey conducted by a third-party firm concluded BWI concessions workers were paid more than their counterparts performing the same job outside of the airport. Using information from this survey, Clapp360 created personalized and tailored pitches for a variety of local and regional media, including outlets widely read by elected officials within the state of Maryland. We also provided AirMall’s Vice President Brett Kelly with talking points and media training to ensure he felt prepared to discuss the findings with the media, as well as field follow up questions from reporters as outlets prepared the story for print. This coverage went a long way to discredit Unite Here.
  • Clapp360 secured a front-page article in The Baltimore Sun’s Sunday edition about dining behind the gates. The article highlighted three local dining options and attributed the dining experience to AirMall. Clapp Communications pitched the story to the media, created talking points for AirMall staff and guided media through interviews.
  • Clapp360 arranged for a spread in Baltimore Business Journal featuring AirMall Maryland’s VP Brett Kelly highlighting how AirMall brings local and national business to BWI.

Unique Best Practices:

  • Sharing our wage survey results with the press required a strategy, as we did not wish to share all findings with press but knew they would need to see the impartial results in order to report on the findings. Clapp360 first identified media outlets with readership that would be influenced and affected by this story, namely politicians and the business community.
  • Once we identified media, Clapp360 created a media pitch and a one-page summary of the survey findings to entice media to report on the results and AirMall’s side of the story; not an easy task.
  • Once multiple reporters were hooked, Clapp Communications arranged for them to meet AirMall Maryland’s VP in-person, one-on-one at AirMall’s office to discuss. We went over the survey findings together and reporters were given a set amount of time to review the document on their own. This way, media were satisfied with their access to the full, third-party study results and they did not request to take the survey with them.

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