PROFILE: Iain Burns, British Airways - Burns relishes task to get BA back on track - Challenging times ahead for British Airways new head of comms Iain Burns

On 11 September Iain Burns was taking a break before rejoining

British Airways after a year away as a consultant at Bell Pottinger

Public Relations.

As events unfolded he called BA's offices and asked if they wanted him

to start early. His future employers initially declined the offer. The

next day they called him back, asking him to start immediately.

That first week saw Burns announce the redundancy of 7,200 members of

the airline's 56,000 staff, immediately setting him a daunting internal

communications challenge to raise the spirits of those who remained:

'Morale is good considering that there are a lot of concerned people out

there. As long as they understand why we're doing it and the messages

behind it, people are being fantastic.'

The cure to BA's much-publicised ills inevitably lies in persuading

consumers to return to the carrier and the aviation industry in general.

It is a task in which Burns acknowledges PR plays a crucial role: 'We

know that the real concern is safety and security. What the public want

to see is cockpit doorsreinforced : we're doing it. There's a whole host

of security measures we're doing post-11 September. We worked very

closely with the unions to explain to them - and to the pilots unions -

the need to reinforce doors.'

A glance at Burns' schedule confirms the impression that when he

returned from Bell Pottinger, which he joined in June last year after

three years as media relations and then newsdesk manager with BA, he was

taking on an immense task: 'Last week we had traffic statistics on

Monday, interim results on Tuesday, Concorde relaunch on Wednesday.

Three weeks ago I said to my management team that come this weekend we

would rest up and get ready to start properly on Monday. Then at 2.15pm

someone said there had been a plane crash in New York and it was

American Airlines, our potential strategic partner. This week feels like

the first real week of doing my job.'

It is a task his former boss Nick Claydon - acting communications head

at BA before leaving to join Brunswick - believes Burns is capable of

handling: 'He's a strong team player, highly respected by the media, and

handles the airline business as well as anybody. He's precisely the sort

of chap you would want on board at times like these.'

While the likes of BA have struggled, the reduced number of passengers

travelling has allowed no-frills carriers such as Ryanair, easyJet and

Go to flourish with their price-cutting strategies, as buyers cut back

in the economic downturn. BA has hit back with a number of media

promotions to secure what Burns describes as 'a short-term cash

injection'. However, Burns is determined BA should not be dragged into

public slanging matches prompted by the media profile of their low-cost

rivals: 'My job here is to focus on what's best for our staff and how do

we communicate our message.'

Perhaps the biggest PR success thus far has been the relaunch of

Concorde, with the comms division carefully planning the timing of the

event, seen by 500 million people worldwide: 'The positioning of

Concorde to fly that day was driven by the comms department. We

suspected that our interim results would not be great, but given what

the staff had been through from the previous eight weeks we really

wanted to give them a big lift, so we purposefully chose 7 November as

the day after the interims. One hundred and eighteen TV stations showed

the story, so externally it was a success but for the staff it was a

massive lift.'

It comes amid a backdrop of almost a quarter of his comms staff falling

victim to the airline's widespread redundancies, and BA's main retained

agencies - Brunswick and GCI - taking cuts in fees as part of the

cost-cutting drive. At the same time BA has rarely been in greater


'The whole department is utterly focused on our own airline. Post-11

September we took 5,000 press calls in a month. There is a massive

appetite in the media for what BA is doing,' he says.

Burns is determined the bulk of the firm's PR work will remain in-house,

as illustrated by the interim results of two weeks ago: 'Most of the

work is produced in-house in terms of delivery - what we say and when we

say it. I think it's vitally important for my staff to realise that we

have the real experts in-house. I'm absolutely determined that all the

key decisions be made by the in-house team as it's good for their


I want to encourage them and bring them up to speed so that we are

setting the agenda and have everything in place here to handle our PR


As he walks around the comms department he notes with disdain the layout

of the entrance: 'You wouldn't know you're in the comms division of a

major airline,' he notes, 'it may as well be IBM.' As he walks out the

office he confides: 'It's the sort of thing I noticed the first time I

was here. Now I can do something about it.'


1992: PR manager, American Airlines

1997: Media relations, then newsdesk manager, British Airways

2000: Consultant, Bell Pottinger Public Relations

2001: Head of comms, British Airways

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