Our second speechwriter in Washington, D.C. provided communications for the Aviation Safety Branch of the Federal Aviation Administration. In keeping with what we said in the last post about the interesting turns graduates lives can take once they receive their baccalaureate degree, this subject went from a Child Development major in college to an initial career in the airline industry, and then on to the FAA. Her career is also notable for the variety of genres in which she has written.
The subject’s first job in aviation was with U.S. Air, where she did “financial communications cause that was the annual report and communicating with Wall Street,” marketing and employee communications, and speech writing for executives. Marketing communications included the in-flight magazine “and I was in charge of that.” In 1997 she was hired by the FAA to write for the first FAA administrator, in the agency’s Office of Public Affairs. The sample of her work she provided was a speech written for the administrator and delivered to the Aero Club of Washington in January, 2002. The speech was intended to clearly describe the role of the agency in fighting air terrorism, and to differentiate that role from the one taken on by the newly formed Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Eventually the speech was published in Vital Speeches, which the subject had submitted; she also made clear that such submissions were an avenue for self-promotion among speech writers. “You’ve gotta hustle your stuff. You want your clips for when you’re job hunting. And you want to be able to show your boss that you got her speech in Vital Speeches.”
The subject’s career at the FAA has swung between speech writing and other communication tasks, “cause five years of speech writing, seventy a year, burns you out and every October it’s those same associations and every February is Black American History Month and every, you know, … it’d get a little stale.” Along with six years of working for two agency administrators, she has “led the team that launched the air traffic organization,” spent time in internal communications, and currently works for the aviation safety division, “the regulatory side of FAA, … the part that develops the rules, oversees the airlines, certifies the airplanes, … certifies the pilots.” This position allows her to divide her time between forms of “technical writing” and 20 to 25 speeches a year for the “executive in charge of this division.” When helping with the creation of the air traffic organization, which includes oversight of controllers, technicians, and support staff (“FAA is 50,000 people and 38,000 of them are the people that run the air traffic control.”), she did speech writing, internal communication to “front line employees” and “your leadership team,” and customer communications—“outreach to airlines and other users of the air traffic control system.”
With the variety of genres came a variety of audiences. The FAA administrator would speak to audiences more heterogeneous than those of the safety division executive, which are more technically oriented. The administrator will speak to people in aviation, such as the “Wings Club in New York,” and to business groups like the “Town Hall in California and the Economic Club in Detroit.” The Aero Club seemed a combination—“three or four hundred people in the room.” The subject described this outfit as “mostly lawyers and lobbyists. … most major airlines, if not all of them, have a Washington office. So that would be their government affairs people. And then, here in Washington, there’s the Air Transport Association, that’s the major lobbying arm of the airlines. So it’d be people from the lobbyists with the airlines and it’d also be the law firms that represent the airlines. So, it’s all the movers and shakers that deal with aviation policy that mostly affects the airlines.” The Aero Club speech would also be aimed at a more general public, since aviation reporters would be there from the New York Times and the Washington Post, as would other reporters—“the major news outlets have people based in Washington who cover transportation. They would likely be there.” The intent of the speech warranted the forming of a “public,” as Michael Warner* has described, a public beyond “the assemblage of lawyers, lobbyists, and policy wonks in the room.”
The problem facing the administrator in January, 2002, as the subject saw it, “was to set the record straight because people didn’t understand aviation security. And it’s easy when you’re the government agency for everybody to say, ‘It’s the FAA’s fault. [Referring to the events of the previous September 11th.] You know, why didn’t the regulator do more?’ But aviation security was paid for and operated by the airlines, and the same people that were in the room at the Aero Club were the ones that would go running up to Capitol Hill saying, ‘Well, this is too expensive; we can’t pay for these machines to be at every airport. We can’t pay for screeners to do this. That will add cost, you know, that will add price to the cost of an airline.’” The hope, therefore, was that the speech would be reported in a major newspaper or on a network or cable news program. If that didn’t happen, then maybe the reporter would file the material for use in a future story. “There was an article in USA Today last week about aviation safety and they quoted … my boss, but it was a speech he had given a couple of months ago.” Another challenge involving the subject and her first FAA administrator was to prepare for testimony before the National Commission on Terrorism, again regarding the events of September 11th. As the subject put it, “the reputation of the agency was at stake,” even though the speaker was now the former administrator.
Her current boss, the head of the safety division, has spoken to groups like the Aircraft Electronics Association, the National Business Aviation Organization, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and an international air traffic automation colloquium in France. Preparing for an international audience posed particular difficulties. “You write differently when you’re writing for an international audience cause you can’t use all your U.S. colloquialisms. And stuff doesn’t always translate, like if you’d make a light comment in the U.S. it might be an insult or just boring or inappropriate somewhere else. And it was technical and the third reason it was so challenging was that he cared so much about this that he wanted to really come across as the ‘visionary thinker.’” When the stakes are high, as in the testimony or at the international gathering, the speakers themselves become particularly tough audiences for the speech writer. “He’d call me every, ‘How’s it coming? How’s it coming? Have you got that draft yet?’”
*Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005.