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Sector: Stakeholder and Community Engagement

From flying planes to streamlined mobility: air travel in a post-COVID era

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Will aviation ever go back to normal? The word normality is in fact deceptive given the level of ongoing transformation in the aviation industry over the last decades. Civilian air travel has been in a state of constant flux so to be quite honest there is no normal. The question we should be asking -and even more appropriate for this industry in particular- is what is our direction of travel?

All that said, there is no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic was a transformative moment for the industry. As the world started to go into lock-down in March 2020, air travel effectively came to a halt. Airports were virtually closed, operating a bare minimum of repatriation flights while airlines tried to maintain their slots by operating “ghost flights”, keeping their planes up in the air even when they were carrying no passengers.

According to industry calculations, overall there was a 66% fall in passenger numbers in 2020 as compared to the previous year, whereas currently IATA is not expecting a full recovery to 2019 levels until 2024. That is a total of 4 years severe disruption in an industry that already appeared to be in a state of constant crisis, operating in a highly competitive market, with flag carriers under pressure to compete with low cost airlines, with ever decreasing margins and no respite from the need to pay their fuel bills, their slots at airports for all the time they are not able to be up in the air and all their other external costs. The industry adage was that stalling operations for as little as one day was enough to send an airline into crisis. Survival the past four years has in most cases depended on government subsidies to prevent strategic operators from folding, with all the impact that would have on the countries of their nationality, for which having a flag carrier is of vital importance for having any control of their communication links with the rest of the world.

On top of this, even prior to the pandemic, the airline industry was under considerable pressure to change. Not just to be more competitive but to also raise its game in sustainability, with the European Union playing an instrumental role in establishing targets for emissions reductions and carbon compensation. All of this adding to short term costs in terms of renewing and modernising fleets and increasing efficiency on the routes on which they operate.

Given all these challenges, it is unsurprising that regardless of the inherent pace of change, airlines yearn for things to get back as close as possible to at least something resembling the normality of 2019, in which flying had become as regular a feature of modern-day mobility as travelling long distance by car or by train. In this sense the industry is likely to follow the lead of consumer demand. The Easter break has been a turning point for the tourist industry. Hotel occupation in Spain was 90% and as high as 100% in popular regions such as Andalusia. And while the media focused on how quiet cities like Madrid had become as Spaniards took their first opportunity in two years for a proper holiday, judging by the number of foreigners strolling in the city centre, it looked much more like an image of 2019 than 2020 even if there is still some way to go.

Meanwhile there continue to be clouds on the horizon: Covid still exists and is not just making passengers sick. The UK faced considerable disruption over the Easter break due to airline and air-traffic staff shortages, and while many consumers may still feel nervous about holidaying as intensively as they did in the past, the war in Ukraine may provide an argument for many to stay put, and not just out of fear but also out of a desire to contribute less to the energy crisis. However other prophecies about the future of air travel appear not to have been fulfilled. Some airlines are already lifting mask restrictions and business realities put paid to the idea that airlines are going to have to space apart passengers on their flights.  Even the European Union is rolling back most of the restrictions in its own common travel area and as populations start to achieve triple and quadruple vaccination there will be less pressure to continue to require vaccination certificates among the general population.

With the coming summer set to be the first big test for the travel industry and industry perspectives looking quite positive after the poor results over the past two years, what then are the key changes that we are likely to see in the coming months and years as we go back to flying more regularly?

1.     Industry consolidation. The pandemic led to most airlines relying on state support to be able to maintain their operations and this reliance on subsidies stalled a number of merger plans, for example the planned integration of Spanish airline, Air Europa in IAG. In any case, it is likely that for their long-term survival as things go back to normal such plans will be reinvigorated as the need to return to profits partly by reducing the number of players trumps other concerns.

2.     Increased cost of air travel. The lack of demand during the pandemic led to substantial ticket price reductions on more popular routes however as things go back to normal, airlines will need to recover their margins and with increased fuel costs it is likely that it gets harder to travel on a budget. As airlines increase their prices, they may also feel the need to offer more premium services to passengers to ensure that the more discerning passenger gets the services that he or she desires.

3.     Flexible payment methods. Spanish airline, Plus Ultra, has recently announced a new policy in which passengers purchasing their tickets months in advance can pay in instalments. No doubt airlines will need to continue to find innovative ways to encourage people to get back to travelling, especially when their own domestic budgets are under increasing pressure as the global economy starts to slow.

4.     Focus on sustainability. With so many negative messages about the environmental costs of air travel, airlines will need to compete in trying to regain customer confidence by promoting sustainable messages, for example linked to the introduction of cleaner aircraft, carbon compensation or investments in a cleaner future for aviation. The airlines that look like they are making the biggest effort to clean up their act will have an opportunity to reap dividends.

5.     Integrated mobility. For too long prior to the pandemic, airlines saw alternatives such as high-speed rail as the enemy with which it was necessary to compete. As sustainability concerns come increasingly to the fore and some governments even start to establish restrictions on shorter routes that they deem can be better served by rail, airlines, rail and coach companies will need to collaborate more closely to offer streamlined door to door services, often encompassing a combination of transport modes. With liberalisation on many European higher speed routes, we will see more companies seeking to expand their services and with Spanish airlines such as Air Nostrum already looking at branching out into rail transport, we will no doubt see more airlines trying to position themselves more strongly in the wider mobility space.

From a PR perspective, all these changes only reinforce the need to communicate. As the industry starts to evolve beyond Covid, changes in public opinion and consumer habits over the last couple of years will require airlines to position themselves savvily in a very different ecosystem. Even while the bread and butter of air travel may continue to be more or less as it was prior to the pandemic, the relationship that consumers have with the brands that attend to their mobility needs will never be the same. And it is here where operators have the chance to really stand out by heralding a new era of air travel.

Grayling advises airlines, airport operators, air-traffic control bodies and other stakeholders in the overall airline industry on their communications needs, from training their spokespeople, through to planning their crisis response strategies or developing 360-degree consumer campaigns aims at repositioning them for a brighter future. Should you wish to discuss further the requirements of your organisation, our professionals would be happy to guide you as you regain altitude following such a challenging two years.

Adrian ElliotHead of Digital, Grayling Spain

Fit for 55 – Key players in the European Parliament

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On the 14th of July, the European Commission published the Fit for 55 package, a legislative package that aims to reduce European Union’s emissions by 55% by 2030 and to reach climate neutrality by 2050.

The legislative work is slowly beginning in the European Parliament with political groups distributing files and nominating rapporteurs and shadows.

Our Grayling team in Brussels provides a snapshot of key players to date involved in the race towards climate neutrality.

Click here to download our stakeholder map for free.

Would you like to know more or get in touch with these policymakers? Our Brussels-based Grayling team can help you navigate the European Union, inform you about the latest developments in the European institutions and support you in your engagement with decision makers:brusselspa@grayling.com.

Delivering a meaningful public consultation through online engagement

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On 31st March 2021, Kingston Council approved the plans for Unilever’s new global headquarters to be developed in Kingston upon Thames town centre in the UK. This decision means that Unilever, the company behind many household brands such as Marmite, Ben & Jerry’s and Dove, would be consolidating its workforce from five sites across London and Surrey, bringing 2,000 jobs into Kingston.

In addition to the offices, the plans include the construction of a new residential building, car park and landscaped gardens. This development will regenerate an underused and largely vacant site into an attractive, accessible campus in the heart of the town.

These plans are very exciting for Kingston, even more so as they were designed with local people. Over the past year, there has been a significant amount of work done to engage and talk to local residents, ensuring that these plans will be genuinely welcomed by local people. The Grayling Engage team led the public consultation process (on behalf of the developer, Cube Real Estate) for these plans and has delivered despite the pandemic.

In pre-COVID-19 times, the consultation process for plans like these would involve face-to-face events (in a public library or church hall) where the plans would be open to the public who could ask questions to staff. For obvious reasons, this wasn’t something that was possible in 2020, but we still needed to make sure that the community was properly engaged with, even if we couldn’t present the plans in person.

Instead, the public engagement for this development took place entirely online through EngageOnline, Grayling Engage’s fully customisable and flexible platform which keeps the conversation going online.

The consultation process for these plans took place in two phases. In both consultations, exhibition boards and a feedback form were hosted on the website, as well as a live chat function so residents could speak directly to the project team. Following consultation, over 50% of respondents agreed in principle with the plans for the site.

Residents were kept informed of the consultations and design development through highly targeted social media advertising. To ensure all residents were reached, more traditional methods were used as well, with over 2,500 leaflets delivered neighbours and adverts placed in the local press.

In addition to the public consultations, throughout the design process digital meetings were held with key stakeholders in the town, including the University, Kingston Chamber of Commerce, Kingston First, the town’s Business Improvement District, and local politicians. When the application reached committee, it did so with letters of support from the University and both business groups.

Despite a global pandemic and the normal way of working being totally transformed, we still managed to fully engage with local people in Kingston who would be most impacted by these plans. Across the entire consultation period we:

  • Reached 45,153 people for each phase of consultation through press advertising.
  • Reached 31,101 people through social media.
  • Received 3,828 visitors to the website.
  • Received 293 responses to the two phases of consultation.

One of the largest sites to go through planning totally virtually, this represents a real shift in how we should look at consultation. Through our work during the pandemic and our Future of Engagement research, Grayling Engage has continued to develop EngageOnline over this period, with new features being added to ensure that we can keep the conversation going online.

Receiving planning approval for these plans is just the beginning for this project and the delivery of this online engagement is just the start for EngageOnline. If you would like to find out more about the platform, get in touch on engage@grayling.com

First pan-European study published on the way politicians are using social media

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Grayling has published the first pan-European study on the way in which politicians across Europe are using social media, revealing the impact of geography, gender, age and political alignment on social media communications.

The study, which was conducted in partnership with social media intelligence firm Linkfluence, analysed almost 3 million pieces of content posted by members of Parliament across 17 European countries, as well as the European Parliament, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The role of social media as a channel for engaging policy-makers has been on the agenda for Public Affairs professionals for a long time – certainly since the power of social media in political campaigning became clear, which has been obvious at least since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008.

 

But how are politicians in Europe actually using social media?

The volume of activity varies quite significantly in different parts of Europe:

“The results are, to say the least, fascinating but it’s not easy to pick out clear explanations for the geographical discrepancies we see in how much MPs/MEPs are posting on social media. It’s much easier to refute theories than to suggest explanations which fit the data. There are no doubt multiple factors, and that’s ok with us. We love data but, like all good Public Affairs professionals, we like speculation and a good debate even more”, said Russell Patten, CEO of Grayling Brussels & Grayling’s Chairman of European Public Affairs.

 

MPs are not focusing on the same platforms as their constituents

In all bar one of the 17 countries, Facebook ranks as the most popular of the three platforms amongst the general public, with Instagram second and Twitter third (Russia is the only exception; there, Instagram ranks first, followed by Facebook and then Twitter).

However, MPs are publishing 67% of their posts on Twitter, with 28% on Facebook and 5% on Instagram. And the data for followers are similar: Twitter accounts for 79%, Facebook for 14% and Instagram for 7%.

“The fact that Twitter is the most popular social media platform probably won’t surprise many people. However, the results also highlight the diversity that exists across Europe, as there are some very local exceptions to regional trends, even between neighbouring countries. For example, given that the Czech Republic and Slovakia were one country for many decades before 1993, you would expect Czech and Slovak MPs to behave in a very similar manner on social media. But the opposite is true. Twitter dominates in the Czech Republic; in Slovakia, on the other hand, more than 80% of posts are on Facebook – with Twitter playing a negligible role. There are many factors that might explain this, but without understanding these local dynamics, it is impossible for businesses to run effective multi-country digital advocacy campaigns”, said Jakub Hudec, Head of Public Affairs, Grayling Czech Republic.

 

MPs are genuine influencers online

The ‘engagement rate’ is simply the number of engagements (likes, shares, retweets, comments etc.) with a piece of content divided by the number of people who follow that account:

“Looking at the average engagement rate for Members of Parliament across Europe, they engage their audiences via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter much more effectively than the average social media industry benchmarks for brands, and even ‘influencers’. There could be several reasons for this. First, while Twitter, Facebook or Instagram users may choose to follow lifestyle accounts in a more ‘passive’ capacity, the action of following a politician will usually translate into ‘active’ political engagement and followers voicing their opinions on the posts. Second, politicians rapidly understood that social media platforms constitute a unique opportunity to transform the way they communicate to citizens. This means moving away from broadcasting to stimulating an actual debate which allows politicians to ‘survey’ their voters’ positions in real time, ahead of electoral milestones”, said Delphine Millot, Managing Director, Grayling Brussels.

 

Male and female MPs are using social media differently

Male MPs are posting slightly more on Facebook than their female counterparts, while women are posting more than men on Twitter (and Instagram). Average engagement rates for female MPs are also higher than for male MPs – at least on Facebook and Twitter:

“The fact that female MPs favour Twitter even more than men is a surprise given that Twitter is the most male-dominated of the three platforms amongst the general public. There’s also, let’s face it, the abuse that politicians receive on social media, particularly on Twitter – and which afflicts female MPs even more seriously than it does men. It is partly explained by the fact that female MPs are, on average, younger (our analysis shows that younger MPs favour Twitter and Instagram) and are also more likely to be on the Left (particularly the Centre Left, where Twitter is clearly the favoured platform). And why are female MPs seeing higher engagement rates for their posts on both Twitter and Facebook? Based on a couple of micro analyses, posts which generate the strongest engagement are those which find the right tone for the moment, are constructive and avoid trying to score cheap political points. Maybe this is where female politicians have an edge over some of their male counterparts?”, said Geraldine Schroeder, Managing Director, Grayling Germany.

 

Age is also a factor

“The fact that age affects social media use isn’t exactly a bombshell – most of us know that from our own families. What is surprising is that the very youngest MPs (the under 35s, who account for approximately 10% of the total) are not the most active group on social media. They are, though, the most active on Instagram and their content generates the highest engagement rates across all three platforms. This suggests that it’s quality rather than quantity for the youngest MPs: they understand how to use social media and prioritise generating comments, likes, shares and retweets over a high volume of posts”, said Ben Petter, Chief Operating Officer, Europe at Grayling.

 

The extreme ends of the political spectrum are disproportionately active

 

“This data shows that the Right have been the most effective at building a following on social media. The Right’s messaging is also spread more evenly across all three platforms, suggesting they are the most efficient in sharing content and certainly the most consistent in using them. The Right also has the highest level of engagement on Twitter – although this includes opponents engaging to criticise. All in all, the Right are winning on social media at the moment, by a very wide margin on Twitter and Instagram. This has also provided them with a platform to get noticed by traditional media in a way that hasn’t been available to similar parties in the past. It remains to be seen if this is a long-lasting structural benefit for the Right, as a result of social media making it difficult to convey political context, complexity and nuance or whether a combination of platforms moderating content more and other groups improving their messaging on social media mean this trend will change in the future”, said Clare Moody, former MEP and Senior Strategic Director at Grayling.

 

Interested in a bespoke analysis focused on priority topics for your company?

Grayling, in partnership with Linkfluence, has launched ‘GPol’, a social media monitoring and digital advocacy service. GPol combines the social listening capabilities of Linkfluence with the local market knowledge of Grayling’s unrivalled network of Public Affairs consultants across Europe. Find out more about how GPol will help you turn those insights into effective advocacy campaigns here.

For more details on our European research, or to explore the data for a specific country, please contact Ben Petter: Ben.Petter@grayling.com or send an email to GPol@grayling.com.