CHICAGO: Attempting to sell its various publics on the benefits of its proposed merger with US Airways, United Airlines jumped into PR rapid-response mode last week.The airline's efforts included everything from hiring several new lobbyists to deal with regulators and Congress to setting up an Intranet site to handle employee questions about the deal. Additionally, the company's 25-person in-house PR staff has been on call around the clock, tapping Fleishman-Hillard (with whom United has worked in the past) for added assistance.
'This is an integrated effort involving our government relations, regulatory affairs, PR and legal departments,' said manager of media relations Matt Triarca. As for Fleishman's input, Triarca added, 'They're a big factor.'
DC seems to be the focal point for United's PR push. Triarca confirmed that the company has added a handful of huge names to its payroll, including Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs, former Reagan chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, former Republican House leader Bob Michel and Ann Eppard, a former chief of staff for the head of the House Transportation Committee.
Triarca noted that while United chairman Jim Goodwin has been the principal spokesperson for the merger, United has a team of five senior executives who are able to address the complexities of the deal. 'We have to make sure we stay on message,' Triarca said. 'We want to be able to move quickly in responding to comments or rumors about the deal.'
According to University of Chicago economist and airline-business expert Sam Peltzman, United scored a major PR coup by announcing plans to spin off routes originating in Washington to a new minority-owned airline, DC Air. The airline will be headed by Robert Johnson, who also sits on the board of US Airways.
'This proposal is one of the great PR moves of all time,' Peltzman said. 'If regulators oppose the merger, they come out looking as if they don't want to create a new major minority-owned business.'
Another airline watcher, Terry Trippler of Web site 1travel.com, said that United 'is playing it the way they should.' He suggested, however, that United might be getting carried away by hiring an army of high-profile lobbyists: 'hiring lobbyists to lobby the regulators is overkill.'