Public Relations Basics for Travel Agents

Learning the basics of effective PR can help travel agents benefit themselves, as well as their industry By: Kenneth Shapiro
Juggling media // © 2011 Schmetfad; Alexander Shirokov; DNY59; Franck Boston
Juggling media // © 2011 Schmetfad; Alexander Shirokov; DNY59; Franck Boston

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Learn more about SoCalASTA's Consumer Awareness Committee

The Details

Five Tips: On Writing A Press Release

1. Be sure to cover the basics in the first paragraph: who, what, where, when, why and how.

2. Make sure you include a date and contact information for follow up.

3. Use the third-person tense (for example, he, she and they, rather than I or we).

4. Stick to the facts and, if you want to share an opinion, put it in quotes and attribute the statement.

5. Proofread the release carefully!
We've probably all heard something similar before. During a recent discussion of the Expedia-American Airlines flap, a radio talk show host on KFI-AM 640 in Los Angeles said, "Are there still travel agents? Is that still a job?"

Comments like this -- related to the out-of-date concept that travel agents are a thing of the past -- are unfortunately all too common in the media and, in all likelihood and in most instances, these comments go unchallenged and uncorrected. In this case, however, some local Southern California travel industry representatives decided to take action. In addition to an e-mail campaign directed to the misinformed host of the show, the Southern California chapter of ASTA (SoCalASTA) created a Consumer Awareness Committee charged with developing a number of projects in order to increase the public's knowledge of the role of travel advisors, as well as their role in the travel process and the benefits associated with using a professional travel advisor.

"The two things travel advisors want most from their trade association are legislative advocacy and promoting the value of travel advisors to consumers," said Jason Coleman, president of SoCalASTA. "While there is clearly a legislative role for national ASTA in Washington, D.C., I believe that the local chapters are best equipped to manage their own state and local legislative efforts and grassroots consumer awareness campaigns."

This episode provided a great example of how agents can be proactive when putting together a public relations effort and dealing with the media -- whether the goal is to promote the overall role of travel agents, as in this case, or to promote an individual agency in order to ultimately bring in more business. Too many agents give little or no consideration to the opportunities that are available through positive PR.

"There is definitely a need for travel agents to engage in public relations and to view it not as a one-time thing but as a long-term effort," said Kristina Rundquist, vice president of communications for ASTA. "You can't expect to see results every time you speak with a reporter but, by working with them and sharing expertise, whether for a quote or on background, agents can position themselves and their profession as a vast source of knowledge."

"I think there are two different kinds of public relations for travel advisors," said Coleman. "There is PR that is focused on the individual advisor and his/her business; then, there is PR that is focused on the industry and promoting travel in general. Right now, there is very little PR that is focused on promoting travel advisors and our industry."

These days, being a public relations expert is simply another important skill a travel agent needs to master.

"Today, PR and branding are inexorably linked," said Dr. Marc Mancini, an industry consultant and educator. "Being really competent isn't enough, especially if you want to grow your business beyond the typical. You must become recognized as an authority, both by the press and by the public. The two synergize."

Here are some PR basics that you can put to use immediately to help strengthen your business.

Develop a Strategy

The first step in developing an effective PR strategy is to step back and take an honest look at your agency: What are your strengths and what are your specialties? Do you have a unique story to tell? Perhaps your agency is family-owned and has deep roots in your community. Or maybe being a travel agent is your second career, and you have an interesting story to tell about why you changed directions. The goal is to focus in on the most interesting storyline and the greatest strengths for your particular agency because, when it comes to working with the media, you will have to get right to the point and capture an editorís interest immediately.

"You can't really maximize your PR unless you figure out precisely what you want to be and where you want to go. So, you need a marketing plan first," said Mancini.

Another important step in developing a PR plan is to identify the ideal media outlets that will give you the best opportunity to tell your story. It's crucial to match your story to the media that is most likely to be interested. For instance, both TravelAge West and the Los Angeles Times cover travel but, obviously, each has its own focus. A good rule of thumb is to target the publications and websites that are your personal favorites because you will naturally know these outlets best and will be able to craft your PR approach to their specific editorial focus.

"A lot of emphasis is always placed on the larger media outlets because of their readership numbers and, to be sure, if you can get a mention in USA Today, it's great. But don't overlook the smaller outlets," said Rundquist. "A regular column over the years in a local paper will probably get you more business than a one-time mention in a national publication. Small papers and magazines are usually eager for fresh content, especially from someone in the community who knows the audience and can relate to them."

Once you have identified your target outlets, create an effective database of media contacts. Include information such as names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, location, what types of stories they tend to write about and how they like to be contacted.

Consider the Publication's Needs
When working with the media, remember the four Cs: credible, compelling, concise and consistent. Editors are generally looking for accurate facts, interesting stories and reliable expert sources to comment on stories. One of the most important keys to working with the media is also one of the most obvious: If a reporter contacts you, respond as quickly as possible. For a reporter on a deadline, a quick response is sometimes everything. It's also a plus if you are prepared with some high-resolution and low-resolution photos -- including a headshot of yourself -- and have a good knowledge of the various ways of getting the images to the reporter (utilizing an ftp site, for example). In short, being easy to work with is crucial to a successful PR campaign.

"I try to remember when working with media that regardless of the outlet's size or the magnitude of a story, I'm simply building a relationship with that reporter," Rundquist said. "I might not have the answers they are seeking, but I'll try and point a reporter to someone who does. I might spend a while speaking with a journalist and not get any coverage, but the next time they need a quote or information, they'll remember that I took the time to help them, that I provided useful information and that I worked to meet their deadlines. In the end, it pays off."

One principle of working with the media that can be confusing for some is that news isn't always just about what's new.

Sometimes, an editor is looking for an expert to comment on breaking news, however often the story is more advice driven: tips for holiday travel or how an agent can help travelers find the best deals, for example. Of course, the public is always fascinated by the hottest destinations or the newest cruise ship as well. The important thing is to appreciate your value as an expert and to share that expertise with others.

"People put more faith in what they see or read in the media than they do with advertising. That's why PR is so powerful," said Mancini.

"Travel agents have so much knowledge to share and bring so much value to consumers that they really need to be taking a proactive stance when it comes to getting the word out about what they offer rather than waiting for the media to come to them," said Rundquist. "As an agent, if you see a story you like, let the reporter know. If you see something you disagree with, let them know -- politely -- and offer to assist them with any stories they have in the future."

Mancini says recent changes in the media landscape can work in agents' favor.

"Becoming a media expert used to require an inordinate amount of ambition, energy and luck," said Mancini. "Now, with social media, websites, blogging, reality shows and variations of more traditional channels of information, just about anyone with self-confidence, an interesting personality and a good amount ambition can become a sort of celebrity who can attract PR like a magnet."

Rundquist pointed out that agents who are ASTA members have access to several guides and video tutorials that cover the media relations process -- from drafting a basic press release to tips for interviewing with the press and more.

"Reporters want to understand the issues and write a story that is not only accurate but will engage the reader," Rundquist said. "Travel agents can certainly help the media with that and, in doing so, position themselves as an expert in a given niche or destination. It's a great form of free advertising, but again it takes some perseverance."

According to Coleman, the time has come for agents to focus on better PR, one way or another.

"I'm seeing a new generation of professionals who are eager to be involved with the changes in our industry," said Coleman. "We can sit around a table and bemoan all of the challenges and ills, or we can take action. Exactly what shape that takes is still to be determined, but I'm very optimistic that we can make a positive impact locally."
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