PR Insider: Corporate Communications and Civilian Safety

David Albritton
David Albritton

While the United States’ air traffic control operations are the safest in the world, many would be surprised to learn that it is based on technology developed in the mid-20th century, despite the high demands of modern day air travel. An overtaxed air traffic system not only threatens to impact the ease of air travel, but also costs the U.S. – and civilian travelers – billions in economic costs and burden.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is modernizing our air traffic management system under an initiative called NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation System), that will help reduce flight delays, enhance safety, reduce overall costs to consumers and fuel consumption, to name a few.

The enterprise responsible for providing the cornerstone of the NextGen initiative is Exelis – a company that is historically known for its night vision goggles and battlefield radios and as a defense contractor.

Most people hear ‘defense’ and automatically think of the military warzones. But in today’s budget-constrained environment, commercial companies and broader government agencies are increasingly looking to the aerospace and defense industry to advance their operations leveraging their level of technological expertise. In return, communications and branding professionals are beginning to identify new ways to transform their brand and company message from traditional military technology service products to advancing public sector operations that impact the everyday consumer (i.e., the air traveler).

As a corporate communications professional in a very niche industry that builds solutions for the public sector’s broader benefit, it is important to address many questions before moving forward. For companies historically known for protecting soldiers, how do we market ourselves beyond the battlefield? How do we ensure both internal and external stakeholders are receptive to this shift in branding? And how do companies entering new and adjacent markets capitalize on new frontiers while building on the foundation that made them what they are today?

Consider the following guidelines if you are in the process of transforming your corporate brand position to reach a non-traditional target audience. These principles are especially relevant if your brand is regulated by public policy.

  • Align internal stakeholders on business strategy

In highly regulated sectors such as air traffic management and defense, the first critical step is to ensure internal stakeholders are aligned on the overarching business strategy. Ensure alignment from the onset from internal leadership involved in public affairs, regulatory issues affecting your industry and/or third party partnerships to be sure all decision-making voices have been considered. Ensure your legal team reviews your communications and branding strategy at various stages of development to ensure compliance as elements of your strategy may have changed over the course of time.  Gain insight from your finance or Investor Relations team (if publicly traded) to ensure financial obligations and any sensitive, confidential points are taken into consideration prior to developing a fully fleshed out strategy.  All communications efforts – including branding – should be derived from a seamless and aligned strategy that has been blessed by all internal decision-makers.

  • Build your brand around your customers’ unique needs

While branding should be built on business strategy, it is also equally focused on customers’ differentiated needs. As you build the communications and branding framework around your brand, develop and incorporate key messages that resonate with these needs in customers’ unique, but varying, environments. What are their core objectives? What factors are included in their decision-making processes? How does your brand tie in with each of your customers’ (or direct audience’s) goals? Think through opportunities to align your brand with customer-specific engagement, such as creating co-branded events. Position your brand so that it meets the needs of existing customers (in the case for Exelis, it’s credentialing the long-term partnership with the military’s Armed Forces) and the brand’s ability to modify its expertise to enhance operations for newer customers in more commercial spaces (i.e. the Exelis partnership with the FAA).

  • Shift public affairs to social affairs

As business-to-business and public affairs conversations are increasingly showing up online, it is important to incorporate a robust social and digital media strategy into your brand communications efforts, regardless of niche industry. Gone are the days when brands can post create social content that doesn’t map back to business strategy. In order to show true authenticity and transparency online, brands must carefully consider how they engage with new audiences in the digital realm – particularly if engaging with partners such as the FAA to cross-promote modernization efforts. On this path, be equipped to activate a crisis or issues response plan if needed, given the rapid spread of news online.

Next time you fly, remember that corporate communications and branding strategy sit at the foundation of nearly everything – including effectively communicating your safety while onboard. Enjoy your next flight and safe travels.

David Albritton is vice president and chief communications officer at Exelis, Inc. Follow David and Exelis on Twitter at @DavidAlbritton and @ExelisInc