From new support-animal policy to new routes, American Airlines tries explaining why in a podcast

Earlier this year, American Airlines executives were batting ideas around about how to reach its more than 120,000 employees. They quickly settled on a podcast format.

American debuted “Tell Me Why,” little bites of corporate wherefores, in January, in response to an internal survey that found employees wanted to hear more about rationale behind the company’s decision-making.

In breezy episodes generally no more than eight minutes long, host Ron DeFeo, American’s vice president of global communications, sits down with a guest, usually one of the carrier’s executives, giving them a platform to discuss the airline’s strategy.

The podcast is meant for employees, and most access it on the company’s internal website, Jetnet. But DeFeo said the team decided to post the show publicly on iTunes and Soundcloud because such information tends to make its way to the public anyway.

“There really is no such thing as internal communications anymore,” he said.

Podcasting isn’t new for corporations, but the format of American’s and its release to the public is “very uncommon,” said Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.

The company is effectively saying: “We don’t want employees to say things that are different than we are telling our customers,” he said, adding that internal and external communications are often separate groups.

“Tell Me Why” topics have included American’s rationale behind adding certain routes, the introduction of no-fills basic economy fares, or why it decided not to hedge fuel even as costs rose. Other subjects have included more workaday issues that would be familiar to many employees at a large company like contributing to a retirement fund and wellness rewards.

The airline is essentially blurring the line between internal and external messaging, and the audiences for that information, Deshpande said.

On Monday, with the rollout of its new rules for passengers wishing to bring emotional-support animals on board its flights, it used the podcast to explain the rules.

The podcast explains how the airline makes money. Vasu Raja, vice president for network planning, used a Feb. 21 episode some routes from New York to the Caribbean that were axed because the airline wanted to drive more traffic through its hubs, and New York airports are usually travelers’ final destination.

“When we fly Buffalo to Dallas, we don’t just make money on people going from Buffalo to Dallas. The real money is getting people from Buffalo to Austin, and Asia and Mexico and places like that,” Raja said on the show. “We can earn disproportionately large revenues versus our costs.”

The airline is still focused on routes popular with high-value business customers from New York, however, Raja explained.

American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said the “Tell Me Why” episodes are played on average, about 12,000 times, 2,000 times externally — a relatively small audience compared with blockbuster podcasts that can top millions of listeners a month.

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