Flying High at YVR: A story of pioneering and leadership

(Photo courtesy of Vancouver Airport Authority)

How the Vancouver Airport Authority implemented a media relations campaign in preparation for the legalization of cannabis in Canada

Vancouver Airport Authority is a community-based, not-for-profit organization that manages Vancouver International Airport (YVR). YVR is Canada’s second busiest airport, connecting people to destinations in Canada, the U.S. and around the world. The airport contributes more than $16 billion in total economic output, $8.4 billion in GDP and $1.4 billion in government revenue across the province. It has been globally recognized as Best Airport in North America for a record 11-years.

The following article outlines how the Vancouver Airport Authority implemented a successful communications and media relations campaign that led them to win the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Gold Quill Award.

Legalizing cannabis in Canada veers into uncharted travel territory

In late June of 2018, the Federal Government of Canada announced it would be legalizing cannabis effective October 17, 2018. With only 12.5 weeks to prepare before the law took effect, Brock Penner, Manager of Corporate Communications at the Vancouver Airport Authority, knew they could not wait for government and enforcement agencies to organize and affect communications within the lens of an airport environment. With a complex set of stakeholders to consider and knowing that a significant understanding, awareness and behavioural action would be required of the travelling public to avoid serious legal consequences if travelling with cannabis, the Vancouver Airport Authority had to act quickly to educate travellers on the rules about travelling with cannabis.

“As soon as the announcement was made by the Federal Government we began receiving a ton of calls from the media asking how this would affect travel,” says Penner. “It was then we knew we couldn’t wait and would have to begin mobilizing a communications plan and media relations strategy to be ready for the October 17 legalization date.”

Vancouver Airport Authority takes the lead

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vancouver International Airport employed more than 26,000 people, across hundreds of external business partners, including Canadian Airport Transport Security Authority (CATSA), Canada Border Services Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, airlines, baggage handlers, food service providers and more. The Vancouver Airport Authority itself employs nearly 500 people and its role is to manage airport operations and run the business of the airport. The Vancouver Airport Authority itself has no mandate in security or enforcement, rather law enforcement and security agencies operate within airport facilities. This meant that it has a responsibility to educate and inform its stakeholders but had no part in the enforcement of the new regulations.

The announcement of cannabis legalization created a grey area of unknowns for everyone, including YVR, as most details were determined in the 12.5 week period between announcement and enactment. Questions began pouring in almost immediately: what cannabis legalization meant for the airport; how much can a person carry; what types are allowed; where it can be consumed at the airport; rules around travelling with it within Canada and other countries; and many more which Penner and his communications team did not yet have the answers to.

Another factor that needed to be taken into consideration was the fact that in most other countries, cannabis consumption and possession is a criminal offence. So, passengers coming from YVR could face criminal consequences if they were not properly educated on the laws about travelling with cannabis. While Penner and his team were waiting for the provinces and territories to figure out what implementation of cannabis legalization would actually look like, they realized that this was an opportunity to be proactive and take a leadership approach.

Ready, set, communicate

The lack of advanced notice of provincial rules and regulations meant they had to move fast in order to continue providing a safe and exceptional experience for YVR passengers. The Vancouver Airport Authority quickly began mobilizing communications plan that was targeted to the media and its stakeholders regarding the new laws of the possession and consumption of cannabis at YVR.

It was all hands on deck. Penner and his team understood the need to provide key information and create awareness around the legalization of cannabis. Together, they understood that a strong educational and awareness piece around cannabis legalization was needed, and recognized the power of media relations as the most efficient way to reach their key stakeholders. It was then that they distilled the most crucial information down to four simple messages on what passengers needed to know if coming to the airport with cannabis and or attempting to travel with it:

  1. Crossing international borders with cannabis is illegal
  2. If travelling with cannabis in Canada, you must be aware that laws vary by province and territory
  3. It is your responsibility as the traveller to know the cannabis laws wherever you travel
  4. Cannabis smoking and vaping is permitted at YVR at designated areas only

Once this was solidified, the information was sent out in the form of a media alert. “At that point, we knew the media needed information and so we sent out our top four tips and let them speak for themselves,” says Penner. “We explained at that time that we would be holding a press conference the next week and a YVR spokesperson would be there to provide a full debrief on the subject.” By doing this, the communications team was able to fill the information vacuum by giving the media a bit of information which they were grateful for while also giving the team a bit more time to finalize the full communications strategy. “We knew that by splitting it up in this way it would allow the drive of two cycles of coverage,” says Penner. “And that the second cycle of coverage would be much richer and more fulsome with the presence of a credible spokesperson.”

Furthermore, an internal communications campaign was being executed in tandem within the airport that included physical and digital signage that was strategically placed in high-traffic areas and at key touch-points along the passenger journey throughout the airport. Because information regarding cannabis legalization was scarce, Penner knew that if they didn’t act quickly, the situation could have major impacts on airport operations.

“We had some work to do to educate our public and protect and safeguard our own operations,” says Penner. “If passengers were not informed of the new rules and regulations, it could affect the daily operations of the airport and create unnecessary confusion for them; they could also face serious legal consequences if trying to cross into the U.S. or travelling internationally with cannabis in their possession.”

IABC Gold Quill Award worthy results

The Vancouver Airport Authority has an exceptional reputation for having an honest communications policy with the media. This includes having an open-door policy for allowing media presence at YVR and providing prompt responses to their questions. “We recognized the opportunity to leverage our reputation and rapport with the media to help tell this important story in the best interests of our community and society,” explains Penner. Ultimately, that existing relationship helped aid in the campaign’s success along with recognizing the information vacuum and seizing the opportunity.

The objectives of the campaign were two-fold: to educate passengers through internal and external communications tactics; and, to protect the integrity of airport operations by ensuring passengers were equipped with the knowledge on how to travel with cannabis. By taking the situation head on, the Vancouver Airport Authority was able to achieve its communications objectives. “We seized the opportunity to take a leadership role and help to communicate the new cannabis rules and regulations on behalf of our security and law enforcement partners,” adds Penner. “By taking this stance, we were able to provide resources to travellers to help the security and enforcement agencies operate efficiently and effectively, thereby ensuring airport operations run smoothly.” Quickly mobilizing to develop and communicate its four key messages proved to be the winning combination in achieving success.

“By informing the travelling public on what to do, we avoided potential negative consequences,” says Penner. Legalization of a previously banned substance from a law enforcement perspective had the potential to become a significant issue if not communicated correctly.

When asked what advice he would give to a communications professional about communications best practices during the roll-out of a newly legalized substance, Penner recommends not overthinking it. “Just because the situation is huge and complex doesn’t mean the communications solution must be too,” he says. ”We identified the value that communications could bring early on and that we had a major role to play in the communication of cannabis legalization at the airport. One of the reasons I think the campaign was so successful is because it was so simple.”

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Christian Thomson

Christian is a British-born entrepreneur and founder of Marwick. For over 19 years, Christian has successfully helped businesses excel in digital marketing. Founded in 2012, Marwick has grown from a start-up to the 11th Fastest Growing Company in Canada in 2020 and expanded into the UK in 2019.

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