Danny Rogers: How Willie Walsh became a PR convert

At the time of writing, the second wave of British Airways strikes is well under way and a resolution is still some way off.

Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers

Indeed, conciliatory noises between BA and Unite have become quieter and quieter. If anything, the PR war that has been raging since last autumn has become fiercer and bloodier.

It was a little ironic that BA said, on Monday, it was disappointed Unite had resorted to 'negotiation through the media', when this is pretty much what the airline has been doing so effectively for the past six months.

On the same day, BA issued a press statement that its aircraft were 'having the "Keep the flag flying" slogan painted along their fuselages to underline the message that the airline will continue to fly throughout the 15 days of strikes planned by the Unite union'. The truth is that the airline has enjoyed a powerful strategic communications campaign, of which this was just the latest tactic.

Unite has struggled badly to catch up. Recent blunders - such as left-wingers storming an Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) meeting, and misjudged tweets from Unite negotiators during the talks - are signs of desperation from the union that it is losing the battle for hearts and minds.

Some observers might say it is hardly surprising that Unite is losing the public relations war, bearing in mind the right-wing sympathies of most of the British media. But BA had factored this in when it began the confrontation, equally recognising that its own Achilles heel - genuine public sympathy for hardworking cabin crew - had been removed by the recession, which has involved pay cuts and hardship for many workers.

This, combined with a general sense of 'what have we got left to lose?', has given BA the confidence to mount one of the most determined communications offensives in its history.

CEO Willie Walsh, who went missing during the Terminal 5 problems in March 2008, is now a convert to media performances, personal videocasts, stunts and social media campaigns.

One senses that British Airways is committed to a fight to the finish on this one. So let's hope Walsh's judgement is sound.

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