Media Analysis: Can BA save its reputation?

British Airways was plunged into crisis a fortnight ago, as it confirmed that it was the subject of a joint US Department of Justice and Office of Fair Trading price-fixing investigation.

Worse still, the very people who usually defend its reputation – corporate comms chief Iain Burns and his boss, regular spokesman and commercial director Martin George – were put on ‘leave of absence’ while the investigation took place.

BA has reacted by splitting press handling between six PROs, with corporate agency Brunswick advising behind the scenes (PRWeek, 30 June), and now faces months of uncertainty, while the investigation reaches a conclusion.

The allegations are the latest in a litany of PR crises to hit the airline.

Last August’s Gate Gourmet fiasco, where flights were grounded as BA baggage handlers walked out in support of sacked workers at its catering contractor, was the third consecutive summer of strikes. A severe pensions deficit and rising fuel costs further threaten business. Yet the Gate Gourmet dispute apparently had little effect on the airline’s bottom line. BA delivered its first profit on short-haul routes in a decade, for the year to 31 March 2006.

Reputation damage in the City
This time the issues are more complex, but the concern may spill over from media and analysts to consumers if unnecessarily high surcharges are proven.

While most of BA’s customers will be more concerned about the cost of seats than ongoing corporate issues, the outcome of the price-fixing allegations will certainly affect the airline’s reputation among investors and City analysts.

PRWeek asked two experts about the level of damage to BA’s image and what it can do to protect itself.

Andrew Clark, former Guardian transport correspondent, now The Guardian’s Wall Street correspondent: ‘Nearly every journalist with an interest in aviation knows BA’s comms chief Iain Burns. A few details of the allegations surrounding him have dribbled out, but in general rumours are circulating with no one to quash them.‘BA’s press team has always been highly professional. Its previous chief executive, Sir Rod Eddington, was a garrulous character and there was a culture of fairly informal dialogue. New boss Willie Walsh has shown signs of favouring a tighter ship.

‘The airline has had more than its share of crises. Strikes are usually targeted at BA’s busiest season – summer – which is also when newspapers have acres of space to fill. Unlike industrial action, the price-fixing debacle has no direct impact on passengers and is unlikely to cause multinationals to cancel contracts with BA – a point critics should bear in mind.

‘BA still has good reputation for frequency, comfort and customer service, which compares well to US rivals that are stripping out free food, drink and anything else they can think of.’

Toby Nicol, easyJet corporate affairs director: ‘BA has faced a bucket-load of unwelcome press since 2003. But this is different – it’s self-inflicted and any goodwill has evaporated. The speed with which investigations move will ensure regular, reputation-damaging revelations. If there was ever a time when BA needed its well-liked and long-serving press chief Iain Burns it is now, making his “leave of absence” all the more perplexing.

‘BA handled this badly from the start. Price fixing is not a solo sport yet BA only drew attention to itself, allowing Virgin Atlantic and others to emerge smelling of roses.

‘BA now needs to act decisively to shore up its reputation. In the short term, ex-Telegraph transport man Paul Marston, who is well respected on Fleet Street, should take the driving seat in his role as BA head of news. Regardless of the official investigation, if there is internal evidence of guilt, heads should roll – and quickly. If Willie Walsh suspects a BA culture that still believes air fares should be set by airline committees, not customers, he should remove it. If not, George and Burns should be back at their desks and BA should face the investigation with a clear conscience.’

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