BAA's PR: up close and personal

Exclusive research by BritainThinks reveals major comms lessons for airport operator.

Exclusive research for PRWeek suggests that BAA comms chiefs 'missed a trick' by failing to talk about passenger safety as heavy snow crippled Britain's largest airport last month.

The operator of Heathrow should also have provided concrete examples of how it would invest money to prevent the same problems happening again, it is suggested.

BritainThinks, a new research firm set up by Gordon Brown's former pollster Deborah Mattinson, conducted a study to explore the effectiveness of BAA's response to the headline-grabbing disruption at its airports.

Drawing on techniques first developed in the world of politics, BritainThinks sought to replicate the 'real world' media atmosphere, exposing participants to negative messages that were aired in the press, and then to the BAA rebuttals and alternative research-based messages.

After running a series of messages past 2,000 members of the UK public, it emerged that 76 per cent of people reacted positively towards a statement put out by a BAA spokesman revealing plans to spend £10m to 'build up the resilience of Heathrow during the winter'.

But BritainThinks director Ben Shimshon said: 'The workshop participants felt that these problems seem to arise every time there is bad weather, which means that assertions around extra spending are taken with a pinch of salt. BAA's statement could have been improved through a few well chosen examples of where the cash would be spent.'

The findings also suggested that BAA's approach could have been improved through the addition of a clear message around its concern for passenger safety.

The second most popular message - 'passenger safety has to be my number one priority' - was one later created by the research agency which could have been attributed to BAA CEO Colin Matthews.

According to Britain Thinks, BAA failed to clearly articulate such a message itself.

'BAA missed a trick in failing to offer a clear account of its concern for passenger safety,' said Shimshon. 'The British public accepts that passenger safety must take priority. Combined with an understanding, apologetic tone, a clear safety message could have had a lot of traction.'

HEATHROW TIME LINE

23 December: BAA launches inquiry into Heathrow airport's handling of the snow chaos

22 December: Stranded passengers are finally on the move, as CEO Colin Matthews says he will not take his bonus for 2010

21 December: PM David Cameron says he is 'frustrated ... it's taking so long for the situation to improve'. Second runway at Heathrow is reopened

20 December: BAA apologises to passengers. Matthews says BAA 'underestimated' the difficulty of clearing the snow

19 December: Thousands of Britons left in disarray after snow leaves Heathrow Airport all but shut.

£10m - Amount Matthews said BAA would spend on more winter equipment

£6m - Amount BAA invested in snow and de-icing runway technology in 2010*

4,385 - Number of BAA staff at Heathrow, as of November 2010

69 - Number of vehicles in Heathrow's snow fleet**

Source: *BAA **BBC News

VARIOUS CORPORATE MESSAGES - AND HOW THEY TESTED

TESTING THE MESSAGES - Four comms messages and their overall public approval ratings

BAA chief executive Colin Matthews has made £10m available and has asked the operations team at Heathrow to spend that money on whatever it takes to build up the resilience of Heathrow during the winter and restore passenger confidence in the airport. - BAA spokesperson - 76%

'We were underprepared. I am truly sorry that the sudden snowfall has ruined passengers' plans and we are doing everything we can to get people where they need to be for Christmas. I apologise that it has taken so long, but passenger safety has to be my number one priority.' - BritainThinks' research-based message - 54%

'We were overly optimistic about how quickly we could clear the stands of snow. I regret that. As chief executive of BAA, my focus is on getting people moving and rebuilding confidence in Heathrow.' - Colin Matthews, CEO, BAA - 45%

'I'm really disappointed to have disrupted so many thousands of people's Christmas plans. It's absolutely distressing and heart-breaking to have been in the terminals and confronted with individuals, each with their stories of really sad and disappointing outcomes. I couldn't be more sorry.' - Colin Matthews, CEO, BAA - 40%.

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