UAL works with a quartet of firms amid Chapter 11 woes

CHICAGO: UAL is working with four PR agencies as the stricken company struggles to pull out of a financial tailspin under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

CHICAGO: UAL is working with four PR agencies as the stricken company struggles to pull out of a financial tailspin under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The United Airlines parent has retained Gavin Anderson to handle crisis communications around its bankruptcy and restructuring, identifying it in court proceedings as its PR counsel for the emergency. UAL has also brought on Robinson, Lehrer & Montgomery (RLM) to handle strategic communications, while Chicago employee relations firm Matha MacDonald is taking on internal communications.

UAL media relations director Richard Nelson said the airline will continue to use Fleishman-Hillard, which was its primary agency before September 11, for public affairs and tactical work on an as-needed basis. The firm's Chicago office has seen its United work dwindle, though it has coordinated coverage of airport appearances by CEO Glen Tilton in LA and San Francisco.

United has placed Tilton front and center, with appearances at its major hub airports in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, LA, and Washington, DC to stress the airline's "business as usual" message with passengers, press, and employees. On the day of the filing, United arranged simultaneous employee meetings and press conferences with Tilton in Chicago, while other senior executives were dispatched to hub airports elsewhere.

"The strategy, first and foremost, is to remain visible," said United media relations manager Chris Braithwaite. "In each market, the media obviously wants to know how this will affect its readers and listeners, and it's very important for the chairman to be that voice."

Documents filed with the US bankruptcy court administering the case show that UAL retained Gavin Anderson in January "for corporate communications work in relation to (UAL's) potential financial crisis," paying the firm an initial fee of $50,000, with a subsequent monthly retainer of $15,000, and an expense fee totaling 3.5% of monthly billings.

The retention agreement cites the agency's work in a number of large and midsize bankruptcy cases, including those of Zenith Electronics and Bridge Information Systems. It also highlights Gavin Anderson president Robert Mead's experience with the bankruptcy of TWA, among other cases.

United's patchwork of agencies owes its patronage to a number of executive fealties. RLM was brought on by Tilton, who forged a relationship with principal Linda Robinson during his tenure as ChevronTexaco chief. Matha MacDonald, which previously handled media relations for the airline, is a holdover from the tenure of former United PR chief John Kiker, who left the airline in August to head Edelman's New York corporate and PA practice.

Media relations chief Nelson is also a former Matha hand. Gavin Anderson was initially brought on through its association with Kirkland & Ellis, the main law firm handling the bankruptcy case.

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