On Message: BA and Unite trade blows in PR war

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

PR Week editor Danny Rogers on how BA is squaring up to trade union Unite in the PR battle over striking cabin crew

Today should decide whether or not British Airways is about to face potentially the most damaging wave of strike action in its history.

And yet one cannot help believing that the airline’s management is secretly loving every minute of it.

Several august bodies will cast their judgement over the dispute today: the conciliation service Acas; the Department of Transport; and even the High Court, as BA uses every means possible to stymie Unite’s plans for 20 days of cabin crew strikes due to start tomorrow.

Despite the potentially disastrous effect on its revenues, BA has felt firmly in control of this dispute since well before Christmas.

It has been running a strategic communications campaign peppered with powerful tactics, not least the increasingly innovative use of digital media to win over the public.

All of this is underpinned by a sense of confidence that emanates straight from the top.

Chief executive Willie Walsh, while without the natural communications skills of his predecessor Rod Eddington, has his own direct style, which has won him much loyalty within BA’s management and among the business media.

Walsh is a streetfighter at heart and in recent months he has used social media and PR stunts to forge a direct relationship with the travelling public.

In the relatively early days of his tenure, he suffered the PR disaster that was the opening of Terminal 5 – where he disappeared from the spotlight for far too long – but somehow managed to survive. Since then he, and his communications team, have discovered a surer touch.

BA has delivered a backs-against-the-wall belligerence that follows a volley of blows to its solar plexus, from the threats of terrorism to the ash cloud.

But it is the underlying recession that has counter-intuitively given BA a boost. Apart from having little to lose any more, the airline’s management have realised that Unite would always struggle to win a PR battle around the strike, while hundreds of thousands of other workers are losing their jobs or facing pay freezes.

Walsh and his team have driven this message home in a co-ordinated campaign. They have briefed the media – both traditional and online – relentlessly about how well paid BA cabin crew are compared to other airlines and the perks they receive.

They have recorded a series of direct video addresses by Walsh that were widely used on newspaper websites and circulated via YouTube and Twitter. They have even monitored staff forums to dig up doubt among the striking cabin crew and tipped off the media.

Cleverly, senior managers have been trained to step in for striking cabin crew and their experiences logged and blogged for further media ammunition.

It all adds up to a heavyweight assault on disgruntled cabin crew, which will result in one of two outcomes: eventual victory over Unite, with a few concessions; or catastrophic losses for the airline, which would struggle to ever recover.

This is a game of fascinating communications counter-strokes, but above all, the very highest of stakes.


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