It is some years now since Burson-Marsteller did its first survey of the attitudes of journalists, financial analysts, investors and other opinion formers and uncovered the strong correlation between well respected executives and the image of the companies they ran.
Since then the thesis has become widely accepted, though in the UK context there were always some outliers that did not correspond to the pattern – British Rail in the days before it was broken up and privatised was one; its image remained poor whoever was in charge.
Arguably BAA, the company that owns and operates Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and the leading Scottish airports, is the modern version of British Rail in that it is widely believed to be a company that offers its customers a truly gruesome experience, but seems not to care because it is a monopoly. Last week, however, it was announced that Sir Nigel Rudd, one of the most respected of the current generation of businessmen – who interestingly is as well thought of in the corporate world as he is in the City – has agreed to become chairman. Thus is the challenge. Will Sir Nigel drag Heathrow’s reputation up, or will he sink to its level?
The closest recent precedent of a top man making a big difference was Michael Grade’s arrival at ITV. Its programming is not much different, its advertising has still to recover, and it has been caught out along with others in the row about premium phone lines. But Grade has had a big effect. Though the reality has not much changed, the glass now looks half full rather than half empty.
Yet ITV is a small company. Grade has been able to rely on image and style, rather like Allan Leighton at the Royal Mail, but that is not going to work for Rudd. Unless the customers see immediate and visible signs of improvement then he is in trouble. That indeed is the message of Leighton’s tenure. He certainly improved the Royal Mail’s image, but it is sinking again because whatever he may have achieved behind the scenes, there are few customers who think the service has improved.