If newspaper headlines are anything to go by, British Airways may
be in danger of losing the right to its title of The World’s Favourite
Airline. Since Virgin’s ’dirty tricks’ allegations claiming among other
things that BA had an unfair monopoly in cross-Atlantic flights five
years ago, BA has suffered several PR nightmares from cabin crew strikes
to criticism of the firm’s rebranded tailfins by Baroness Thatcher.
It cannot have helped that, during that same five-year timespan, BA’s
communications have been in varying states of flux. The in-house
function has been revamped three times since communications head, public
affairs director David Burnside, left in 1993 after nine years in the
The most recent development in the saga has been the appointment of top
aviation barrister, Robert Webb QC as BA’s new general counsel - a title
which effectively means he will head BA’s legal department and its
government affairs and competition units. Although BA will not confirm
it, Webb is by all accounts stepping into the shoes of BA’s corporate
resources director, David Holmes, who is expected to retire next
A month into his new job, Webb last week gave a flavour of things to
come when he sprang a public affairs agency review, to the surprise of
most lobbying agencies. Webb’s arrival adds another layer to the already
dense internal politics at BA. Brunswick has handled BA’s public affairs
for the past six months. Significantly, the agency also holds BA’s
corporate and financial PR account, work it was commissioned to handle
by BA chief executive Bob Ayling at the time of the cabin crew strikes
It is no surprise that Ayling, a New Labour sympathiser, appointed the
Labour-friendly Brunswick a few weeks after Tony Blair’s election
BA’s main PR adviser until then had been Conservative peer Lord Bell’s
PR agency. Lowe Bell - now Bell Pottinger - was brought in during the
’dirty tricks’ incident by then-chairman Lord Marshall and president
Lord King, a Tory peer.
Although Brunswick officially reports to communications director Simon
Walker for its corporate and financial brief, the partner in charge of
the account, James Hogan, is believed to have direct access to Ayling
and vice versa. The BA account is believed to have been worth over
pounds 1 million in fees to Brunswick last year. A Brunswick partner
himself until last April, Walker used to work alongside Hogan heading
the BA account.
Insiders claim that PR staff morale at BA is low as a result of
employees feeling their jobs are being superceded by Brunswick. Coming
on top of internal changes, this has aggravated an already unsettled
climate, although staff turnover has remained perhaps surprisingly
After Burnside’s departure, his department was broken up under separate
heads without an overall communications supremo. With Ayling’s
succession as chief executive three years ago, the department was
gradually cobbled back together under two further departmental
restructures. Still, not since Burnside’s day have lobbying and media
relations been under one single roof.
Burnside, who now chairs communications group New Century, says of his
time at BA: ’We had a clear structure which worked. It was across
parliamentary affairs, marketing support, general press relations
worldwide and internal communications. There were clear reporting lines.
It worked at the time.
I’m not close enough to know if it would work now. It was as good a
structure as you’ll get.’
Regardless of departmental revamps and PR agency appointments, the tide
of events has not recently flowed in BA’s favour. Observers point to its
planned alliance with American Airlines as the single, most damaging
thorn in its side. Over two years after the alliance was unveiled by
Ayling, the global economic downturn and regulatory demands from
Brussels forced him last month to delay the plan.
While events like this do not help the firm’s PR effort, there is no
doubt that a more stable in-house environment might have prevented them
from being blown up as much as they were in the media. Webb’s
appointment and his decision to review Brunswick’s public affairs
account may not bode well for the stability of BA’s in-house PR. Webb
and Walker’s different backgrounds may cause them to have diverging
views on the firm’s direction.
On the other hand, Walker has made progress in establishing a coherent
structure including five divisional heads who form his leadership team
and will hopefully be able to do their work unhindered.
Commenting last week, one working day before BA’s half-yearly results
were announced, Walker said: ’The communications department is
professionally highly competent.’ He admits one of his aims is: ’to try
to bed things down and have a consistent, news-orientated organisation
that’s giving the BA message to the world and to our staff.’
But, as the Lowe Bell-Brunswick succession shows, PR at BA cannot be
divorced from the bigger political picture. And here the burden rests
with Ayling who, despite his strongpoints, is seen by some to lack
Arguably, Ayling has moved the organisation he heads away from its
long-established, if old-fashioned, image without providing a united,
coherent message as a substitute. In this context, any amount of
well-meaning PR is bound to fire blanks.