Malcolm Robertson, BAA's director of comms, has an impressive CV when it comes to high-profile crisis management experience. After all, this is the man who was at the helm when the volcanic ash disrupted the airways, when Terminal 5 bungled its opening in a mess of lost luggage and when terrorists attacked Glasgow Airport.
Given this extensive experience of media-frenzied situations, one might expect Robertson, who last week announced his departure from the airports operator, to be a ball-breaking, no-nonsense PR man with nerves of steel. Instead, he is an affable, well-mannered Scot who is not afraid to admit that the most recent fiasco to hit BAA, which has now been dubbed 'the snow crisis', had him close to tears.
'The memories are still raw,' he says, as he casts his mind back to the debacle, which saw Heathrow grounded to a halt for four days and hundreds of passengers stranded over Christmas, unable to reach their loved ones.
'It was a very intense experience.
Crises are all-consuming. You don't really sleep properly. You run on adrenalin. You get through it. You survive. The difficulty is when it subsides. Then you just crash. You just have nothing left energy-wise. Your emotions are all over the place. One minute you're up. The next you're down.'
When he has given his all like this, it must irk him, then, to encounter such vociferous criticism as BAA has endured since the snow crisis, which has even prompted an independent inquiry into what went wrong.
'You can't take the criticism personally,' he says. 'But it is difficult sometimes. It's frustrating to see people who have no experience of handling this situation saying what they would have done better. You don't ever know what you will or won't do until you're in the eye of the storm.'
He is particularly scathing about criticism from research company Britain Thinks, which argues that BAA 'missed a trick' by failing to flag up passenger safety issues as a key reason for grounding flights. 'They were the ones that missed a trick, actually, as we released many statements throughout the crisis, all of which mentioned the importance of passenger safety,' he says.
However, the most frustrating criticism for Robertson to take is the assertion that BAA has not learned from previous crises. One of his key messages during the snow chaos was that the airport operator would endeavour to learn from the regrettable turn of events. Of course, this comment gave rise to cries from journalists that surely BAA should have taken these lessons on board already and avoided these operational nightmares.
'But each crisis is completely different,' says an exasperated Robertson. 'And, in fact, many of the lessons we'd learned from previous crises were actually applied very well during this crisis.' For instance, he had learned from the T5 crisis in particular that it was important for BAA to take responsibility for events early on and shoulder the lion's share of blame, even though the smooth running of Heathrow actually depends on many different stakeholders.
'It was clear from T5 that passengers don't want to see a big public squabble about who was to blame. We took a decision that the right thing to do was accept responsibility and apologise to passengers. It's really important to say sorry,' says Robertson.
Inevitably, this meant BAA became a scapegoat and airlines took every opportunity they could to lay the blame at the operator's door, with Virgin even announcing it would be withholding its airport fees until after the inquiry.
While Robertson understands why BAA became an 'easy target' in public, he argues that behind the scenes the relationships with airlines were actually much improved due to a concerted effort following the T5 crisis. 'We talked and worked with airlines much more effectively this time, but publicly there's still the incentive for them to criticise BAA,' he says.
The T5 crisis had also taught BAA the importance of opening up all of its comms channels quickly to provide round-the-clock information. So, when the snow crisis hit, the comms teams sprung into action with military efficiency. Call centres were activated to take customer calls. Tweets and Facebook statuses were furiously typed. Links with government officials were activated.
Extra resource from marketing and PR agencies was drafted in. The 23-strong comms team stepped up into crisis mode immediately. 'Because we have a good crisis plan, which is constantly evolving and which we rehearse frequently, we were all clear about our roles,' says Robertson.
Lack of communication
So, if all the comms channels were running so smoothly, why was the biggest criticism levelled against BAA that it was not communicating with passengers and the airlines? Therein lies the rub: although BAA was talking, it was not saying anything very useful except 'talk to your airline for more information'. Worse still, on the Saturday, it changed its plans regarding the opening of the airport three times, eventually closing it for the entire day.
'This lack of clarity in terms of information became one of our key reputational problems. The airport as a whole did not have a clear picture of the flight timetable to provide to passengers,' says Robertson.
Then, overnight on Monday, a BAA team stayed up to create the first formal reduced-capacity schedule in Heathrow's history.
As soon as BAA did this, Robertson says, it 'started to draw the sting out of the story'.
'The key thing we've learned from this crisis is that we need to get quality information out there, not just information. We need to emphasise to our operational colleagues and the airlines that we need to provide better information to passengers so they can make decisions about whether or not to come to the airport.'
By this time, the story had been rolling for a few days and the media coverage of the crisis started falling into a well established pattern that he recognised: while the actual event was covered in detail by the broadcast media, the print press wanted to find fresh angles and go off on tangents to find them. This means a good crisis manager has to be on top of the core messages as well as the minutiae of the issue.
In this case, the spotlight started to shine on CEO Colin Matthews and his remuneration, at which point BAA decided to announce that he would be forsaking his bonus because of the crisis, making £10 m available for new snow-clearing equipment and launching an inquiry into the crisis.
'The key to moving these stories on is fast, unequivocal communication,' says Robertson. 'Don't let those side stories run for long or you are forever on the back foot and death by a thousand cuts is doubtless a painful experience.'
THE EIGHT DAYS OF BAA'S CHRISTMAS
Thursday, 16 December
BAA posted a weather warning on the Heathrow Airport homepage (heathrowairport.com), advising passengers to keep in touch with their airline, because of the difficult weather conditions.
Friday, 17 December
BAA continued to advise passengers to keep in touch with airlines, and used its Facebook page and Twitter to explain how airports had been affected by snow, the challenges involved and how it was responding.
Saturday, 18 December
BA cancelled all flights. At 12.30pm, BAA announced the runways were closed until 4pm to clear snow. It then said they would stay closed until 5.30pm, but later announced Heathrow would remain closed for the rest of the day.
Sunday, 19 December
At 4.45am, BAA said the airport was closed to arrivals due to dropping temperatures affecting aircraft parking stands and that 50 flights would depart. It continued to emphasise the need for passengers to contact their airlines.
Monday, 20 December
Colin Matthews, BAA's CEO, gave a round of broadcast interviews. He accepted responsibility for what was happening and underlined the passenger advice. BAA also updated all channels regularly throughout the day.
Tuesday, 21 December
At 4am, BAA published details of an emergency timetable on the Heathrow website, advising travellers to stay at home and keep in touch with their airline. Journalists started to ask about Matthews' remuneration.
Wednesday, 22 December
Robertson gave TV interviews. He said Matthews would not take his bonus. BAA denied Heathrow had run out of de-icer. Robertson told The Guardian Matthews had made £10m available for new snow-clearing equipment.
Thursday, 23 December
Sir Nigel Rudd, BAA's chairman, was interviewed by Andrew Cave of The Sunday Telegraph and gave details of the inquiry established by Matthews and chaired by Professor David Begg. BAA announced the inquiry at 4.30pm.
The biggest challenge facing Robertson is how to create some affection for Heathrow among the general population so it is seen as a national treasure, rather than an object of ridicule or embarrassment. Related to this is persuading airlines that the Heathrow brand is a really valuable element of their product and if Heathrow's reputation is not in a good place, then that will affect the marketability of an airline ticket featuring it.
In Robertson's own words: 'We need to emphasise to our operational colleagues and the airlines that we need to provide better information to passengers.' How can one do that? We have found that inviting operations people to participate in crisis communication exercises cements relationships and, most crucially, increases their understanding of the importance and information needs of the communicators.
- The comms function can help the company express the right emotions, but 'we are deeply sorry' and 'we are doing everything we can' only get you so far when passengers are stranded at Christmas or oil is washing up on beaches. This does not mean there is no point in communicating, but it does mean that your comms goals need to be aligned with the realities of the operational challenge.
- If you make a promise and keep it, the brand gets protected. Break it and the brand gets damaged. So BAA made a promise to open the runways by 4pm, then pushed this back to 5.30pm. The impact of deplaning a spitting-mad Tweeting public was huge. It is not surprising that the airlines pointed the finger at BAA.