How many birds struck commercial airliners last year? You may never know if the Federal Aviation Administration has its way.
The agency that oversees U.S. flying machines fears that data about bird strikes may create undue public concern about the safety of commercial aviation. Last Thursday, according to this AP report, the FAA made a stealth move to keep bird-strike data secret, quietly publishing its proposal in the Federal Registry in the late afternoon.
Turns out the AP has its own agenda on the bird issue. The wire service requested the FAA bird data (via FOI) shortly after the “miracle” landing of Flight 1549 brought the issue to prominence. The agency’s “secret” database is said to include more than 100,000 reports of bird strikes going back nearly 20 years. All were voluntarily submitted by the airlines.
If the AP uncovers a bigger story, we all need to hear it.
Openness over secrecy. When it comes to matters of public health and safety, organizations must put openness ahead of secrecy. That’s a fundamental tenet of public relations, and one we preach in our classrooms at Kent State.
I was a cheerleader for transparency long before the Web 2.0 crowd adopted it as a core principle. My love of transparency isn’t driven by some altruistic notion of “right,” but by a loyalty to our clients and to the publics those clients serve. Secrecy on matters of public interest — especially health and safety issues — doesn’t serve the public or the organization. It only taints reputations and foments mistrust. Secrecy in matters of public interest is bad PR that drives away customers and investors, neither of whom like surprises.
I’m all for hiding information when it gives my client a fair competitive edge. There’s a reason KFC doesn’t tell us the “secret recipe.” But fried chicken, consumed in moderation, poses no threat. Canada Geese splattered on the windshields of airliners do.
In my practitioner days, I worked with several clients whose business created public concern and anxiety. One was a large trash hauler, another a processor of sewer sludge. (I had a glamorous career, indeed!) Neither client was one that communities would normally trust and embrace, yet both dealt with problems we all have a hand in creating — if you know what I mean.
For both clients, transparency was the ONLY logical strategy — just as it is now for the FAA.
When elected officials or community activists expressed concern about our clients’ proposals — for example, construction of a solid waste transfer station — we hosted field trips to identical facilities in other cities. We invited any and all questions, and we met all concerns head on, even those that were entirely illogical, and many were.
Why is the FAA so concerned about the bird-strike data? Birds fly. Planes fly. And sometimes their paths cross. But until Flight 1549, bird strikes weren’t exactly a top-of-mind issue with most Americans. Now they are — and the FAA’s insistence on hiding data makes us all the more curious. I’m hoping the PR professionals at the FAA are pounding their fists on management’s table and opening the blinds to let the sunshine in.
Confession: I hate flying almost as much as I hate geese. But at least airliners don’t poop in my yard. But if the airlines would install gun turrets under the cockpit, I’d be willing to fly shotgun! I’d even bring my own ammo.