One of the things I do for marketing clients is help them create a legitimately better product or service. A clearly superior option sells itself at a premium without the need for endless amounts advertising, promotions and gimmicks trying to convince people it’s something it’s not. In fact, when I started this blog nearly 4 1/2 years ago, one of my first thoughts was, “If this new KCI terminal idea is so good, why are they hiring a PR firm for $117,000 to spin it?” We soon learned of course, that the proposal and what it claimed were distant cousins at best.

Here we are now, evaluating multiple new proposals based on new realities and understanding and hopefully with some lessons learned. Yet the process these past few months has been reminiscent of an old Keystone Cops movie. Even the Kansas City Star has repeatedly (and appropriately) commented on the process, sounding more like a civics teacher correcting a class that just doesn’t get it.

The missteps, backtracks and ethics concerns have been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere. But I was struck today by a breaking piece in the Star from Steve Vockrodt wherein the airlines late yesterday, gave what the late Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post might have called a “non-endorsement endorsement” for the Burns and McDonnell option.

“We are a strong supporter of the Kansas City community and our preference would be to stay local and work with KCI Hometown team,” said a statement from the consortium of airlines that fly passengers in and out of KCI. “No matter which team is selected, we will be happy to work together with the city to build a terminal that would improve the customer experience for all KCI travelers and Employees today, tomorrow, and in the decades to come,” the airlines’ statement said.

So they didn’t actually endorse the specific proposal but rather the idea the local team and ended by saying they really didn’t care. Of course, in the same article was a prepared statement from Burns & McDonnell;

“For the Airlines to say the Burns & McDonnell KCI HOMETOWN Team has the best proposal for KCI, its passengers and the airlines — is the ultimate stamp of approval and we are proud and grateful for their support,” said Burns & McDonnell vice president Mike Brown in a written statement.

Of course, the airlines didn’t actually say that. They said they would prefer to stay local. Shortly after the article appeared, the official Burns and McDonnell twitter feed proudly hailed:

We are honored and grateful for the Airlines of KCI recommending our KCI HOMETOWN Team to design/build a #NewKCI

Councilman Quinton Lucas, who has maintained a measured voice throughout tweeted:

Didn’t know the airlines were speaking in advance of selection cmte completion. Will be happy to move on soon.

He later expanded on his comments on his Facebook page. I agree with his presumably raised eyebrows tweet and have to ask why the airlines, led by Southwest, made this statement. Is it as simple as the airlines simply wanting to stack the deck in favor of a proposal they think has a better chance of approval at the polls in November or is there something else in play? If the Council chooses the AECOM proposal or any of the others, they too are free to work with nearly all of the local “partners” of Burns and McDonnell and others not on the “KCI Hometown Team.”

I’m a marketing guy, not a politician, and am unfamiliar with how lobbying relationships work – other than their job being to talk to people and influence decisions. But I find it curious that Burns and McDonnell, The City of Kansas City, and Southwest Airlines are all represented by the same lobbyist – Kit Bond Strategies. I find it curious that a question from the Star, “asking if the airlines would weigh in on [the] selection process” was not answered with something more respectful of the Council process. Something like a simple “yes” or even a more appropriate, “We appreciate being included in both the presentations and ongoing discussions and out of respect for the elected representatives leading the process, we will share our observations with them as they have requested.”

Finally, I’m curious about the discussion between the airlines regarding the statement. Is it a Southwest statement that the others deferred on (or didn’t know about) or did they all collaborate and collectively decide to breech protocol in this case. Regardless, I’m impressed with the speed with which Burns and McDonnell crafted their PR response given that they were no doubt caught off guard on a holiday weekend.

May the best proposal for Kansas City International Airport, not simply the best maneuvered, win.


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