ANALYSIS: In-House PR - Constant PR change damages BA’s image. The fact that BA is reviewing its public affairs account, just six months after awarding it to Brunswick, points to confusion within its PR function at a time when it needs cohesion

If newspaper headlines are anything to go by, British Airways may be in danger of losing the right to its title of The World’s Favourite Airline. Since Virgin’s ’dirty tricks’ allegations claiming among other things that BA had an unfair monopoly in cross-Atlantic flights five years ago, BA has suffered several PR nightmares from cabin crew strikes to criticism of the firm’s rebranded tailfins by Baroness Thatcher.

If newspaper headlines are anything to go by, British Airways may

be in danger of losing the right to its title of The World’s Favourite

Airline. Since Virgin’s ’dirty tricks’ allegations claiming among other

things that BA had an unfair monopoly in cross-Atlantic flights five

years ago, BA has suffered several PR nightmares from cabin crew strikes

to criticism of the firm’s rebranded tailfins by Baroness Thatcher.



It cannot have helped that, during that same five-year timespan, BA’s

communications have been in varying states of flux. The in-house

function has been revamped three times since communications head, public

affairs director David Burnside, left in 1993 after nine years in the

job.



The most recent development in the saga has been the appointment of top

aviation barrister, Robert Webb QC as BA’s new general counsel - a title

which effectively means he will head BA’s legal department and its

government affairs and competition units. Although BA will not confirm

it, Webb is by all accounts stepping into the shoes of BA’s corporate

resources director, David Holmes, who is expected to retire next

year.



A month into his new job, Webb last week gave a flavour of things to

come when he sprang a public affairs agency review, to the surprise of

most lobbying agencies. Webb’s arrival adds another layer to the already

dense internal politics at BA. Brunswick has handled BA’s public affairs

for the past six months. Significantly, the agency also holds BA’s

corporate and financial PR account, work it was commissioned to handle

by BA chief executive Bob Ayling at the time of the cabin crew strikes

last year.



It is no surprise that Ayling, a New Labour sympathiser, appointed the

Labour-friendly Brunswick a few weeks after Tony Blair’s election

victory.



BA’s main PR adviser until then had been Conservative peer Lord Bell’s

PR agency. Lowe Bell - now Bell Pottinger - was brought in during the

’dirty tricks’ incident by then-chairman Lord Marshall and president

Lord King, a Tory peer.



Although Brunswick officially reports to communications director Simon

Walker for its corporate and financial brief, the partner in charge of

the account, James Hogan, is believed to have direct access to Ayling

and vice versa. The BA account is believed to have been worth over

pounds 1 million in fees to Brunswick last year. A Brunswick partner

himself until last April, Walker used to work alongside Hogan heading

the BA account.



Insiders claim that PR staff morale at BA is low as a result of

employees feeling their jobs are being superceded by Brunswick. Coming

on top of internal changes, this has aggravated an already unsettled

climate, although staff turnover has remained perhaps surprisingly

low.



After Burnside’s departure, his department was broken up under separate

heads without an overall communications supremo. With Ayling’s

succession as chief executive three years ago, the department was

gradually cobbled back together under two further departmental

restructures. Still, not since Burnside’s day have lobbying and media

relations been under one single roof.



Burnside, who now chairs communications group New Century, says of his

time at BA: ’We had a clear structure which worked. It was across

parliamentary affairs, marketing support, general press relations

worldwide and internal communications. There were clear reporting lines.

It worked at the time.



I’m not close enough to know if it would work now. It was as good a

structure as you’ll get.’



Regardless of departmental revamps and PR agency appointments, the tide

of events has not recently flowed in BA’s favour. Observers point to its

planned alliance with American Airlines as the single, most damaging

thorn in its side. Over two years after the alliance was unveiled by

Ayling, the global economic downturn and regulatory demands from

Brussels forced him last month to delay the plan.



While events like this do not help the firm’s PR effort, there is no

doubt that a more stable in-house environment might have prevented them

from being blown up as much as they were in the media. Webb’s

appointment and his decision to review Brunswick’s public affairs

account may not bode well for the stability of BA’s in-house PR. Webb

and Walker’s different backgrounds may cause them to have diverging

views on the firm’s direction.



On the other hand, Walker has made progress in establishing a coherent

structure including five divisional heads who form his leadership team

and will hopefully be able to do their work unhindered.



Commenting last week, one working day before BA’s half-yearly results

were announced, Walker said: ’The communications department is

professionally highly competent.’ He admits one of his aims is: ’to try

to bed things down and have a consistent, news-orientated organisation

that’s giving the BA message to the world and to our staff.’



But, as the Lowe Bell-Brunswick succession shows, PR at BA cannot be

divorced from the bigger political picture. And here the burden rests

with Ayling who, despite his strongpoints, is seen by some to lack

vision.



Arguably, Ayling has moved the organisation he heads away from its

long-established, if old-fashioned, image without providing a united,

coherent message as a substitute. In this context, any amount of

well-meaning PR is bound to fire blanks.



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