About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
A career in the aviation industry is something many people dream about, but to become a manager in the field, you have to be disciplined and fearless. No one understands this better than HSE alumna Maria Sharavina, who is currently the head of the press service at Vnukovo Airport. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Maria tells us why Vnukovo employees do not need motivation, how to resolve PR issues 24 hours a day, how to remember all business jet models, and how to make friends with the media.
How did your professional career begin?
Before I started at the university, I already knew that I wanted to work in PR. I was lucky in that my father was a friend of Alexey Sitnikov, who inspired me to go to HSE and study politics. Before arriving to where I am today, I had worked at a number of companies and in a variety of different fields. I worked as a freelance reporter for VGTRK while I was a student, and after graduating I went to work for the press service of a subsidiary of RAO UES called System Operator-Central Dispatch Administration (now System Operator UES). I was there for two years before becoming an event manager and PR director. I also worked on several programmes for a Russian and Belorussian TV channel. So that’s my background, and after these ‘trial runs’ that allowed me to apply my knowledge, I understood that the tools for advancing in a career are the same anywhere you go if you learned how to approach them correctly.
passengers a year is the maximum capacity of Vnukovo Airport
How did you come to work for Vnukovo?
Aviation had always been an important area of my life. When I learned about the Vnukovo vacancy, I sent in my resume was hired in 2010 as a specialist in the PR department. I later became the successor of Elena Krylova (who is now an advisor and the press secretary for the Russian presidential administration). At one point she had asked me to join her team and was really the one who trained me as a PR specialist. The aviation industry is noble and romantic, but believe it or not, after two years my friends lured me into the banking industry – me, someone who is always restlessly seeking growth. I lasted exactly three months there. No amount of money can motivate me to write inspirational press releases about banking products.
As for Vnukovo though, no one needs any sort of work-related stimulation, and I’m certain of this. Your eyes light up when you come to the airport. Entire dynasties work here, the founders of which were the ones to open the airport 75 years ago. First a father works here, then his son, grandson, great grandson. There are a lot of families like that here. Two of my colleagues are a couple that lives close to Vnukovo. While they’re at work, one of their mothers watches their four-year old. The grandma asks the child, ‘where are we going?’ and he replies, ‘under the glide path.’ That’s how you know you have a future aviator in your midst.
The PR specialist does it all – writes, comments, generates ideas… It’s a very broad profession. What are some of your duties as a PR specialist?
Because the job duties are so broad and you can have a dozen things to do at once, it’s a profession that requires a lot of organisation. Our press service organises media events and creative activities, produces media content, and literally creates a portrait of Vnukovo. No one is sitting around all day going through paperwork, and you always have new things to do. Whoever can’t handle it simply doesn’t do any work. What prepared me best for the job was HSE, where everything is organised according to a certain pace. This toughens up the PR specialist. There’s only one ‘but’ here – if you like to sleep, forget about working in aviation. Airports operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you can face a number of different situations. A run-of-the-mill storm might wake you up in the middle of the night, and you have to tell the media about flight cancellations.
That’s not the responsibility of a dispatcher or meteorologist?
A journalist recently wrote us on Twitter complaining that he had called the press service at three in the morning, but no one answered. I have all of these journalists’ numbers saved in my phone, as an important responsibility of mine is to make sure the media is reporting the news accurately. People’s lives depend on this, and I’m not exaggerating. You only learn about these subtleties on the job, which is why we are always hiring interns.
Do these interns, who are still students, ever stress about this sort of rhythm? Are you ever worried that you’ll turn people off from working in PR?
On the contrary – a lot of them stay with us after the internship. We even structure our internship programme in a way that allows students to see all aspects of working at an airport and to become familiarized with the ways in which we work together with different institutions. This includes the border service, customs, the police, cafes, janitors, etc. When we get new employees, I tell them, guys, the main tool of a PR specialist is language, and polite language at that.
How do you personally deal with the overwhelming amount of communication that goes on in the job?
I’m personally a very talkative person, and the main problem I have with the job is not getting enough sleep. Of course, there’s a huge information overload though. My family was surprised the first time I said to them, ‘guys, I’m tired of talking. Can we get a little silence?’ They thought I had lost it. The media can be interested in anything under the sun – from inflight food options to security, from investments to construction sites. You have to be able to switch gears easily. The media is always looking for something negative, and they’re always coming up with tricky questions. It’s up to the PR specialist to strike a balance and not start with the negatives. This involves advanced-level communication strategies.
Are you involved with the selection process for new PR specialists?
I can say that the most important factor in success at work is the atmosphere that exists on your team. This is why I participate in the interview process. It allows me to see how prepared an employee is to become part of a balanced work structure. It’s not each man for himself; it’s one for all. This includes helping one another and working together in a fast-paced environment. And this sort of rapport works 100%.
If you like sleeping, forget about working in aviation
Anyone who works in the media has the necessary tools of a universal soldier. When hiring someone, we teach him or her how we can be more effective as a team. Even video editing is something our team is capable of handling, even though it’s not our primary responsibility. For example, we recorded and edited a congratulatory video for our chairman of the board. We also evaluated the work of someone competing in a contest, which involved a video made for the airport’s 75th anniversary.
How did you deal with the Transaero situation? I bet you didn’t get much sleep…
Actually, Transaero gave us a lot of their passengers who fly on various international routes. And Rossiya Airlines also took a lot of Transaero’s routes, and flight volumes are recovering gradually.
We were more affected by the closing of the Turkish, Egyptian, and Ukrainian markets, which took away 2 million passengers from us this year. Our numbers were rather disappointing in winter – a 30% drop from the same period of the previous year, but we are increasing passenger numbers and have cut this figure to around 11%. Our old partners are flying more on the routes they have, and they’re also adding new routes, all while new carriers are entering the market. After sanctions were lifted on Iran, we got three Iranian airlines right off the bat. We also launched new flights to Yerevan this year thanks to Armenia’s national carrier Armenia Airlines. Plus we got the Greek airline Ellinair. So all in all I’m certain everything will be fine.
What does an airport’s prestige and competition with other airports depend on? Why is Vnukovo better than, say, Sheremetyevo?
Airports only compete from a business standpoint. As far as PR and interaction with other press services go – we are all friendly and understanding of one another. The aviation industry is also great because people here are moved by the same interests and under one another despite competition.
And about prestige – Vnukovo really is different from other airports. We celebrated our 75th anniversary in 2016, making us Moscow’s oldest airport. We have also been the airport of the Russian government for many years, and Vnukovo is the airport officials from Russia and other countries fly into. On Victory Day last year, Vnukovo welcomed 98% of all official delegations from abroad. This was a huge responsibility for us, as security, comfort, hospitality, and reception make up half of a person’s impression about our country. We are constantly improving infrastructure at the airport, and we are implementing new safety systems to improve security and take in aircraft under all weather conditions.
Vnukovo also has a geographic advantage. The airport is 20 minutes closer to the south than other airports, and this is what makes Vnukovo cheaper for a lot of airlines in terms of fuel and time.
What we are really proud of is the Vnukovo-3 business aviation centre, which is one of the largest in Europe in terms of number of flights and number of passengers. Small private and commercial business jets use the terminal as well.
Do Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo not have private ‘parking’ for airplanes?
They do, but they’re much smaller. Vnukovo is a veteran in this area, and each year Vnukovo-3 holds the Jet Expo, which is a tradition that brings together representatives of airlines from around the world. The airlines that come to the expo all produce business jets, and this is a great time for them to present their latest developments.
Do you ever come in contact with the technical side of the industry? Is this also something an aviation PR specialist should know about?
Yes, and it’s incredibly interesting! As a PR specialist in the aviation industry, you have to have an understanding of new airplanes and how they differ from one another. You have to delve deeper and deeper into the control specifications, and when you’re on-board yourself, you even start monitoring how your plane is taxiing. My colleagues joke that my head is like a filing cabinet with records of all of these issues. For me, the ‘new cards’ in this cabinet stimulate my future work. I want to get better and better, and I’m really happy when there’s a reason to do so.
When you became the head of the press service, did you bring anything of your own to the department?
A lot of things are still in progress, but one large project has already been carried out – the largest system of aircraft spotting in Vnukovo’s history. This is an event for aviation photographers when they are allowed onto the airfield to take pictures of the planes up close. This takes place on July 2nd of each year, which is the airport’s birthday.
HSE shapes your character. I take any responsibility, force majeure or urgent project in stride
Aviation photographers and bloggers are true fans of their craft. One might only photograph the chassis from the runway, another – the flashing aerodrome beacons, another – Eddy currents. Each one is different, and we know a lot of photographers and authors personally and really love their work. This is why we give them access to the runway. We want them to take beautiful photos from the heart of Vnukovo and not from behind a fence like they normally have to. Their work is part of our prestige. This year, 170 people came to the spotting event from all over Russia. The hard part of this is organising everything so that all of the groups can go onto the runway, which has its own rules and SOP.
What are some new things have you done in regards to passengers?
When we started getting new flights, we began paying special attention to this. We made our services special and gave out gifts. We also started celebrating important holidays. On Children’s Day, for example, we hold concerts and competitions for our passengers and their children, and we have two projects with the Presidential Library as well: book-crossing and small theatres with documentaries from the ‘Presidential Chronicle’ series.
airports are in the Russian state airport register, 71 of which are international airports
Additionally, we work with the Gift of Life foundation to hold excursions for its patients. This is not an easy task – the kids are all unique and they have strict schedules as concerns food, medicine, and hygiene procedures. We create a programme and take them through areas of the airport that are normally closed off for normal passengers. We show them the briefing room, baggage processing, and the ornithological and canine service, and we take them on board an aircraft where the captain lets them try on his hat and take a picture from the cockpit. The happiness we see in the kids’ eyes is a huge reward for us.
As the starting point of your career, is political science at all connected with what you’re doing now?
Political science is a very broad field that gives you a fundamental understanding of the world and communications. This is why graduates of the faculty are in the public eye and are successful in a wide range of fields. When we meet with freshmen, we often discuss the experience that HSE gives you. HSE teachers, who among other things are practitioners in their field, teach students about not only theory, but also more practical tools. In our lectures, we dissected cases, picked apart the core of public relations, carried out academic primary campaigns, and much more. This is what makes HSE better than other schools – instructors are able to not only stand behind a podium, but also create something with their own hands and teach the student in doing so.
On the other hand, HSE shapes your character. I take any responsibility, force majeure or urgent project in stride. When your academic year is broken up into modules, like it is at HSE, you get used to being prepared for constant checks and tests. When I finished my fifth year at the university, I looked back and realised that I’d gotten through 25 different periods of exams! You don’t have time to relax; you’re really studying and you don’t ever escape this process. For a PR specialist, every day is like an exam.