Airport’s brand journalism news service takes flight

A once-struggling airport has seen a rebirth. Blue Sky, its news service, reflects the Steel City’s new swagger.

Pittsburgh_Blue_Sky

Two Boeing jets crash, killing hundreds. A national pilot shortage looms. Drone sightings close London’s Gatwick Airport.

From a reputational viewpoint, it might seem risky for Pittsburgh International Airport’s Blue Sky brand journalism news service to newsjack other organizations’ crises.

Yet when you’re out to make your mark as an industry leader, such issues are precisely the kind of things you must address.

“Those are happenings that affect our industry,” says Paul O’Rourke, vice president of marketing. “As a thought leader in aviation, it’s important to provide our perspective on it.”

Launched last year, Blue Sky is a signal that the airport is back as a top global leader. After a difficult spell in which the airport lost USAir—and with it its status as a hub airport—Pittsburgh has taken off full throttle.

Airport of the Year

Air Transport World magazine named Pittsburgh International its Airport of the Year in 2017, making it the first U.S. organization to win the award. Hong Kong International, London Heathrow and Singapore Changi have also won the designation.

The brand journalism site follows up on that by cementing Pittsburgh’s new success after years of struggle that followed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“After 9/11, everything changed in the airline business,” O’Rourke says.

Pittsburgh transformed from a hub to a strictly origin and destination airport, meaning that airlines weren’t routing people (and their wallets) through.

About four years ago, the airport hired a new CEO, Christina Cassotis, who helped turn the organization around. Pittsburgh International has increased nonstop flights by 85 percent in the last three years. It’s also embarking on $1.1 billion modernization plan.

As Pittsburgh showed itself capable of rebounding, others in the industry began looking to it, O’Rourke says. Blue Sky was an attempt to speak in an authoritative and journalistic voice, rather than marketing-style cheerleading.

‘Go to Pittsburgh and see what they did.’

“We are an industry leader now after four years,” O’Rourke says. “People are looking to us and saying, ‘How did Pittsburgh do it?’ They’re trying to solve a problem; ‘Go to Pittsburgh and see what they did.’”

Blue Sky enables the airport to tell its own stories, which inform its employees as well as a broader readership such as journalists and airline personnel. (Ragan Consulting partnered with the airport in establishing the site.)

“The airlines needed to understand the Pittsburgh market better, as people were either beginning their trip or ending their trip here,” O’Rourke says. “And the people of Pittsburgh and the region needed to understand that the hub wasn’t coming back, but there’s still places that you could go, and you need to fly.”

Eleven media outlets—among them the prestigious CAPA/Centre for Aviation—have run Blue Sky pieces. Airports in Sarasota, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee, have picked up the stories. Total impressions are at nearly 42 million, particularly because of a USA Today piece.

Blue Sky’s brand journalism has also improved the airport’s social media presence by providing new items to post, O’Rourke says.

Blue Sky has frequently used newsjacking not just to get ink, but to emphasize the airport and the city’s economic optimism. After Amazon passed over Pittsburgh in announcing a future headquarters, Blue Sky published a clever open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

A ‘Dear Jeff’ letter

“Sure, we’re disappointed, just like the other 18 cities coveting Amazon’s presence. Almost Famous doesn’t count, unless you’re dining at Primanti’s,” Blue Sky stated.

“And while we don’t agree with your decision, we’re not crying in our Penn Pilsner. We’re Pittsburgh, after all.”

Blue Sky writer Natalie Fiorilli covered the story when National Geographic Traveler named Pittsburgh as the only U.S. destination featured on a list of 19 must-see locations.

“Other top destinations included Setouchi, Japan—the site of the 2019 Rugby World Cup—and Antarctica, which at least has one thing in common with Pittsburgh,” Fiorilli wrote.

“You guessed it. Penguins,” she added, referring to the city’s National Hockey League team.

The airport generates plenty of stories of its own, however. It is really a small city, O’Rourke says, complete with a power plant, fire department, police department, shops and restaurants. A total of 9.7 million people pass through its doors every year (up from 7 million just a few years ago).

When British Airways reestablished direct flights between London and Pittsburgh for the first time in 20 years, Blue Sky writer Matt Neistein was there to interview passengers as they got off the plane, among them a Welshman wearing (fittingly) a Penguins jersey.

Getting beyond the gatekeepers

Another article reported that United Airlines was adding a second daily nonstop flight to San Francisco. A report early this year featured a Transportation Security Agency officer whom Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey invited to the State of the Union Address during the government shutdown.

“Now we’re not at the mercy of the gatekeepers,” O’Rourke says. “We can break our own news. In fact, news media have started to pay attention. A lot of them either retweeting our stories or picking them up and running them with our vantage point, because we’re the feet on the street.”

When Delta Air Lines announced it was ending its flights to Paris, Pittsburgh was able to report that “there were more international seats going back and forth now, even without Paris,” he added. “But that side of the story wouldn’t have been told” without Blue Sky.

The team of five former journalists is set up like a newsroom staff, and they have a 15-minute standup meeting every morning to discuss what’s going on that day and whether there are any stories they can newsjack and localize. Blue Sky’s weekly newsletter is mailed to 97,000 individuals at 6 a.m. every Tuesday.

“If we can get the lead anchor on the nightly news here in Pittsburgh to tweet out the story from Blue Sky,” O’Rourke says, “that comes with greater credibility than just us saying it.”

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