Last fall, American Airlines launched a worldwide advocacy campaign to win the U.S. Department of Transportation’s approval to fly from Chicago to Shanghai and Beijing.  Burson-Marsteller’s charge was to find a way to leverage the American’s employees, customers, and other allies in its efforts to persuade DOT to award American the new routes.  


The combination of innovation and creativity attracted more employees than ever before to participate in this company-wide campaign. By merging the structure of a traditional grassroots lobbying model with technology, Burson-Marsteller helped American Airlines bring employees and customers from around the world together in a vigorous fight for the routes to China.

The campaign centered around an interactive website ( that served as a communications hub for employees, customers, media, and third parties. enabled these constituencies to access information about the route award and generate personalized letters of support to their members of congress and the Department of Transportation.  These efforts were supplemented by an employee “fly in” on Capitol Hill, where 600 pilots came to DC for the day to meet with their respective members of congress.  Working the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce, American also mobilized several U.S.-based corporations with large offices in China (ex: Kellogg and Motorola) to add their support for the route application.


The biggest challenge was fierce competition from UPS and Delta for the routes.  American was at a disadvantage from the beginning of the campaign because UPS had already secured the support of over half of the congress.   UPS’ employees and their union,  the Teamsters, had existing organizational and communications structures that were superior to American’s.  


Burson-Marsteller worked with a beta test site for several weeks to refine the functionality and style of  Several tests were conducted to ensure that the data given to employees and used for each letter was 100% accurate.  


The strategy was to mobilize as many supporters as possible, and use technology to develop approaches that were tailored to each audience.  One goal of the campaign was to energize employees and establish relationships through regular communications.  This included updates via emails and letters, visits to employee sites by senior executives, and adding campaign information to company-wide materials such as paychecks and reservation sign in screens.  These communications vehicles were integral to the campaign, as many of American’s employees (ex: pilots, flight attendants and maintenance crews) could not be reached through traditional office communications such as faxes, emails, memos, etc.

Another component of the strategy was to engage as many employee groups as possible by soliciting their feedback on the campaign’s structure and incorporating their ideas along the way.  The most important employee groups in this process were American’s three unions, ALPA, ALPA, and TWU.  The support of the unions increased the campaigns reach and credibility with employees exponentially.  Endorsement letters from the unions were included on, and information about the campaign was included on the unions’ websites and in other union publications.

Outreach efforts were also tailored for American’s customers.  Through American’s AAdvantage database, customers in the Chicago area who had flown American to China in the past were identified and asked for support.  Members of the Chicago-area business community such a Mayor Bill Daley and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce were also asked to take an active role in the campaign. The Chinese-American community in Chicago was also recruited to join the campaign and generated over a thousand letters of support.


The most complex part of the campaign was to offer a personalized experience to everyone who accessed the site, while also exercising rigorous quality control.   When users entered the site, they were able to identify themselves as employees, customers or other supporters.  Information was then tailored to each group so that it highlighted why the routes were important (ex: more jobs for employees, more choices for customers).  

A database allowed users to type in their zip code and generate letters to their representative and senators in addition to the Department of Transportation.  This database was updated daily to reflect members of congress who supported American’s application, and those who supported UPS or Delta.  Using this up-to-date information, users were either presented with thank you letters or letters asking for support.  Users then had the option to personalize or edit the text of the letters.  After the user was finished with each of the four letters, they were prompted to push the send button and shortly received a thank you email confirming that their letters had been sent.  These letters were captured by our database, printed and mailed within a week.


In the end, over 20,000 letters of support were generated on the site and filed on record with the Department of Transportation.  The site was not only featured in the Wall Street Journal Interactive and The Dallas Morning News, but was shortly adapted by both UPS and Delta.  
While UPS won the official designation, the campaigns’ efforts were instrumental in convincing the U.S. Department of Transportation to negotiate an agreement with the Chinese government that will allow more flights to China.  As a result of this agreement, American is now in discussions with the Chinese government to finalize its plans to begin service to Shanghai this year through its codeshare partner, China Eastern.