On 11 September Iain Burns was taking a break before rejoining
British Airways after a year away as a consultant at Bell Pottinger
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
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