Selling Your Air Unit and Keeping it Sold

August 29, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

If your law enforcement agency has the good fortune to include an aviation unit, you understand that it is really the communities you serve that reap the benefits. The stories are legion of how aircraft have helped catch the bad guy, track a missing person, or rescue a stranded motorist.

Unfortunately, aviation units are expensive to stand up and to operate. Plus, they can be seen as intrusive by citizens, whether accurately so or not. For these and other reasons, units attract critics from within the department, from the community, and from the politicians elected by that community. It is no surprise, then, that good public relations (both internal and external) and community outreach are important in keeping the benefits of your unit visible and understood.

"Like all specialty units, aviation is always considered expendable. We may think our services are essential, but financial planners do not." So wrote Bryan Smith, an officer with the Gainesville, Fla., Police Department Joint Aviation Unit. In the face of that reality, he contends, "to stay in business, we have to put considerable effort into educating the people we work with, and for, what an aviation unit is, has done and can do for them."

In his article for the Airborne Law Enforcement Associaiton titled, "Aviation Unit Marketing Survival 101," Smith stresses the importance of training, coordination, and outreach in establishing and maintaining both departmental and community support. It is a good read and he sums things up, "Not marketing is still marketing…if marketing is going to happen with or without our help, we need to do everything possible to keep it on our own terms." (Emphasis mine.)

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Perhaps you've been just keeping your head down, believing that the good you do will be recognized without blowing your own horn. Captain Tom Burrell with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission addresses that mindset directly. "Chances are, no matter what your specialty and how important your contribution may have been in the past, we have entered a new era." He suggests three key efforts you should undertake: be neighborly, be aggressive, and be resourceful. You can read his column on by clicking here, but his recommendation mirrors that of Officer Smith — "Step out of the shadows and advertise what you do and expand on it."

Ernie Stephens, editor-at-large at Rotor & Wing International magazine, likened the need for re-thinking the marketing of air units to both KFC and Tony the Tiger, pointing out how their markets shifted, due to changes in people's views on nutrition, so they had to shift too. "Are we forgetting that, along with changing times, funding levels and technologies, our 'product' may need more exposure…?"

He makes a point worth considering. If you haven't re-thought marketing your unit, you should. And as Tony the Tiger added fruit and orange juice to his "complete" breakfast, intra-agency training, community outreach, press days, and political elbow-rubbing must be part of your complete plan. It requires coordination, execution, and follow-up, like any worthwhile endeavor. Above all, it requires consistency. You must make your unit visible, tell its story, and then keep doing it, over and over. Because when you stop marketing, that's when someone else's story becomes what's important.

What if you believe that marketing isn't the police work you signed up for? Gainesville's Smith thought the same thing. "I am not the least bit interested in business and certainly didn’t sign up for this job because I want to be a marketing manager. They are fine jobs, just not my bag." However, he came to understand that marketing was essential for the good of the department, the unit, and the community he serves. He couldn't be more clear: "Marketing is key to the survival of an aviation unit."

I'm not a police officer, but I've spent nearly 30 years making images that market aerospace products and services, including working for a decade at McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems, home of the police-popular MD500 series of aircraft. And one thing has remained very apparent: the old saw about "a picture is worth a thousand words" is not only true, it's even better than that simple equivalency. 

How so? It takes several minutes to read a thousand words, but only a split-second to understand a photo. And even if those thousand words are a pure joy to read, you're not going to read them again and again and again. (Well, unless it's a joy bordering on the illegal, maybe…) But get ahold of a bold photo, a powerful image, and people will tack it to their tool box, put it in a calendar, hang it in their office, share it on the web. They, and maybe thousands of others, will look at it again and again.

Speaking of sharing on the web, on social media, we've all come to accept a certain level of image quality online. The bad lighting, blurred action, quirky colors. That's fine — have your officers and support staff make and share candid, action, photos to communicate the spirit of your organization (within departmental guidelines, of course). People love seeing those. But when you need a quality image with strong composition, proper focus and timing and color and, well, umph, make sure you do it right. When you are presenting a print to a council member, or submitting photos for the local newspaper, or angling for coverage in a national magazine, excuses for poor quality are just that — excuses.

If you are going to make the images using internal resources, make sure they (you?) are adequately trained and equipped. If you don't own quality cameras, lenses, and gyro stabilizers (for the air-to-air shots), rent them as needed. They can make a big difference in increasing your chances for effective image making. Yet no amount of the right equipment will substitute for training and experience, so if you can pay for photography classes, those can yield benefits for years to come. Study the work you admire in magazines and books, and check out online tips, tricks, and techniques. (For instance, you can read a blog posting from me on how to make better air-to-air photos at Above all, practice, practice, practice. 

You don't want to be the one referred to by an aviation magazine editor who told me, "Goodness knows I'm tired of companies and organizations sending me cruddy, low-resolution photos, and then wondering why I don't put them on the cover."

So, back to the big picture — develop a strategy for marketing your air unit, then execute, evaluate, reformulate, and repeat. Your community depends on it.

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