Anatomy of a Story

December 11, 2010 by Craig Fuller

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Issue One:  31 days ago Belvoir Media Group, LLC and AVweb knew their conclusion about AOPA pay raises was wrong and there has been no correction.

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 Today, we have a new posting on the AVweb site that describes the making of a story….or, maybe not. 

 Here’s my perspective….

AVweb:  At issue is a story AVweb published on November 11th reporting salaries for AOPA’s top managers shown on the association’s public tax filings. The data for the story was taken directly from AOPA’s publically filed IRS forms.

 AVweb did ask for tax documents called Form 990s.  These are publicly available reports filed by associations.  And, as we were told, the chief operating officer of the Belvoir Media Group, LLC which owns AVweb, compared numbers between various years.  Unfortunately, he came to conclusions that are clearly incorrect.  We do not dispute that the source of the information came from tax forms, but we clearly demonstrated to Belvoir Media’s COO and the AVweb editor and publisher AFTER they posted their initial story on November 8th that because of reporting changes and misinterpretations, their calculations lead to faulty conclusions.  And, yes, we did state that the story was flat out wrong.

AVweb:  Although AVweb requested an interview prior to the original story appearing in early November, Fuller declined this request. In addition, AOPA answered only four of a list of a 12 detailed questions we submitted prior to publication.

 The request for financial information came in an email.  A team of people at AOPA reviewed the request and assembled information we thought was responsive to the request.  In fact, we provided links to extensive financial information that we make available thinking that it would be more helpful rather than relying on tax forms that are difficult to understand.  I know our team thought with all the information provided we had been responsive to the request. True, the email did indicate that a conversation with me was desired.  I thought such a discussion would be useful and would occur after they had digested their information.  And, as most of these stories develop with the normal amount of back and forth between reporters and our media people, I figured that if a discussion was needed, I would be contacted. It is also the case that all of this happened as we were preparing for our annual AOPA Aviation Summit, and I was headed to an aviation conference and then on to Long Beach.

What never occurred was a call prior to publication of the posting about pay increases.  A phone call or email to any of us at AOPA describing the remarkable conclusion the Belvoir Media Group COO had reached would have allowed us to identify the errors in about 30 seconds.  In thirty years of dealing with difficult stories in Washington, D.C. I do not remember a time when an organization that thought they had discovered startling information did not call and ask for a comment prior to publication. 

AVweb:  In an extensive and at times contentious phone conference on Wednesday, Fuller illuminated details about budget, the association’s direction and how its related businesses compete with other businesses in the aviation sector.

 Well, we did have an extensive discussion, but I’m not sure it was contentious….maybe I did suggest it was not always very productive.

Honestly, we have taken a good deal of time with Belvoir Media and AVweb.  We thought we’d been responsive to their original request.  I spoke several times with the publisher after they posted a story on pay raises at AOPA that was wrong.  We agreed to meet face to face to sort through the facts.  We were then told getting everyone together would not work (we did agree to fly or drive to a location of their choice….call me old fashion, but these email exchanges are just are not the same).

We were then given over 30 additional questions to review and a conference call was requested.

As AVweb has reported, we provided a written response to every question that runs over 20 pages.  Then, we got on the phone with Belvoir Media Group’s COO who did the calculations, the editor who wrote the first story and AVweb’s publisher.

After repeatedly describing how the numbers used in calculation had lead to the wrong pay raise conclusion, we never once heard a comment about the possibility someone had made an error.

We did hear questions about why we are in the insurance business…curious.  We were asked why we spend as much as we do for advocacy….more curious. 

And, with regard to the budget, I shared with them that we are now projecting that we will end this year spending a little less than was spent in either 2008 or 2009.  I did ask them to remember that we exist to protect and preserve the freedom to fly.  We work to fight regulations, legislation and the imposition of fees and taxes that would threaten general aviation.  We operate in a different kind of “cycle” than the business cycle the Belvoir Media Group COO suggested we had failed to pay attention to when he suggested he’d hope to hear more about cut backs.

Our job, I reminded them, in 2009 with a $9.5 billion user fee suggested by a new Administration was to do everything possible, working with our aviation colleagues, to prevent that billion dollar cost to hit general aviation.  So, yes, in a very tough economic year, we geared up.  It was a good fight.  It was an expensive fight.  And, for now, it remains a successful fight.  OK….so maybe the discussion was contentious here and there during the call.

And, as for this final item mentioned about competing with other businesses in the aviation sector.  Let’s see, we do publish two magazines and electronic newsletters that are supported by wonderful partners in the aviation community through advertising.  And, our partners do this as a way to reach the aviation community.  We do have an insurance agency that does sell insurance to our members who rent aircraft as well as to those who own aircraft.  We have a legal services program and a medical services program. And, now, we are working on partnerships with online companies that allow our members to make different kinds of purchases and AOPA receives a small financial benefit, but it all adds up to support the work we do.

It’s kind of curious that this is being treated like a discovery, since AOPA has broadened its financial base over decades.  It really is not possible to do all that we do with just dues.  We are a $60 million a year organization when everything is added up.  While we enjoy a membership that tops 400,000, even with dues at $45 a person we need additional forms of revenue.  And, when we can find offerings that provide value to the members we serve, I think it is right to explore such opportunities.  By the way, these opportunities do not cost AOPA money they provide additional revenue.  And, in some cases, AOPA members themselves have developed opportunities from which all of our members benefit when revenue flows to AOPA.

I do know that this has been a tough economic time and we remain very sensitive to doing all we can do to support the aviation community.  When we enter the marketplace with an offering, we do so thoughtfully and carefully.  And, increasingly, we are looking for ways to partner with others along the way.  But always, we are looking to provide something of value to our members.

AVweb:  “AVweb’s interest from the outset has been to provide accurate information to our readers and that’s why we agreed to delay publication of stories on AOPA finances until we could confirm additional details,” Cole [the publisher] said.

 I certainly am 100% behind this practice.  Had it been followed prior to the posting of the pay raise story on November 8th we would not be having this discussion.  And, I do commend AVweb’s publisher who throughout this has focused on getting the facts on the table.

AVweb:   we are hopeful the spirit of cooperation that began this process will be sustained.

I am not quite as admiring of how this began….but; you can count on a sustained, spirited exchange.

AVweb:  We’re AOPA members, too, and we think members have a right to know how their money is being spent.

 AOPA members do have the right to know how their money is spent.  And, to be honest, comments in the AOPA Forum and to my last blog posting suggest to me that we should make sure access to all the information we provide is more readily available.  We will create a Governance Section on our AOPA web site that lets people find answers to the kind of questions our members have posed. 

We do publish our annual financial reports and discuss them at the organization’s annual meeting.  Click here to see our most recent information.  But, given the interest and the confusion from reporting off of IRS Forms, we can and should provide clear information and more explanation.

2 Responses to “Anatomy of a Story”

  1. Trevor Evans Says:

    My question would be, why be so defensive and why avoid talking with AV Web in the first place about this? As someone who works in PR and Marketing I would assume that the reason for avoiding the issue is that the Upper Management are aware that the salaries are on the high side and as an Association, which is supposed to be driven by a passion for their purpose, they know they will be criticized by the membership regarding this. Listen, everyone is fully aware that you need to pay good money for good people and that large multinational corporations pay their executives high salaries, but this is an association, which is supposed to be an advocacy, the purpose of which is not to drive profits for the shareholders but to drive the concerns of their membership to the powers that be. Associations and not for profit organizations are seen in a different light than corporate money making organizations, therefore it is normally expected that the executives of these types of organizations will be driven more by passion than by dollars, but clearly AOPA Executives see themselves as Corporate America and expected to be compensated as such. No member expects that we will pay peanuts for monkeys, but we do expect some fiscal restraint when it comes to Executive Compensation for Management in an advocacy association. The mere fact that Fuller initially tried to avoid the interview, then became inflamed by AVWeb publishing the figures that AOPA itself has filled on record with the IRS, is grounds for concern. Claiming that the factual figures “don’t tell the whole story” and that “…we can explain, you don’t understand”, just doesn’t hold water with me. In the PR world we call this damage control and I think that AOPA Members are entitled to understand why the Top Executives at AOPA feel that ‘Damage Control” is necessary. AOPA does a great job, don’t get me wrong, as does EAA, but sometimes these organizations need a wake up call. With Millions of dollars in the treasury, perhaps money could be spent on a General PR or Advertising Campaign in Mainstream Media about the role of GA in the Community, rather than justifying and defending high Executive Salaries and criticizing media organizations for bringing these salaries to the attention of the pilot community.

  2. Secrecy, arrogance, and AOPA | FAA Lawyer Whistleblower Says:

    [...] Fuller’s tone was inappropriate.  Here’s Avweb’s response, and here’s a comment left on Fuller’s blog: My question would be, why be so defensive and why avoid talking with [...]

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