AMR Loses Its Voice

DALLAS ( MainStreet) -- The airline industry differs from many other industries because it is so complex, so heavily covered by media and so widely subjected to criticism.

This is what Tim Smith has lived with for most of the past 22 years, during which he has been not only a principal spokesman for AMR since 1990, but also among the most respected representatives in the airline business.
AMR is losing longtime spokesman Tim Smith to retirement.

In May, Smith will retire -- not because of the carrier's bankruptcy, but simply because, despite its effort to retain him, he is ready, at 62, to ease up. "I never felt I had to work until I was 65," he says.

Smith epitomizes what reporters want in a spokesman. He gets back to you quickly. He usually has an answer, or he gets one. He knows his subject. At times, he talks off the record to better explain things. "I can explain complicated things in a simple way," Smith says. And he is sometimes outspoken.

Things that help him, I think, are that he previously worked as a reporter, so he knows that what reporters want is direct answers. Also, like many people in the airline industry, he is in love with it, which means he is willing to spend time discussing it.

How heavily covered is American? Early in his career, Smith says, the carrier's corporate communications staff counted 20,000 to 25,000 phone calls annually, or about 100 per business day. Now call volume is down, but emails have increased. American is followed closely by about 50 media outlets, including newspapers, Web sites, blogs and TV and radio stations.

"Day in and day out, this industry gets more ink than any other," Smith says. "What has changed is that media that used to work to be fair and neutral in covering us now comes with the premise 'Prove yourself innocent.'"

A former Pan Am spokeswoman once told me that she got dozens of daily calls at the airline, but when she went to work for a hotel chain, she had to call reporters and beg for coverage. A former Eastern Airlines spokesman told me he interviewed for a job at a major trade association, where he was asked "Have you ever managed a crisis?" He had to laugh, he said, because every day at Eastern brought a crisis. To a lesser extent, that's true at every airline.

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