Brash lobbying tactics, such as Virgin’s new advertisement, leave a sour
taste in the Government’s mouth, says Charles Miller, head of the
competitions and aviation groups at the Public Policy Unit
Virgin is no stranger to the use of high profile lobbying tactics. Its
latest campaign against the British Airways/American Airlines proposed
deal goes a stage further by putting its case in a series of large
format advertisements. I like them - well-written, visually attractive,
interesting statements and statistics - but with one flaw: as a lobbying
tool in merger inquiries, they do not work.
Richard Branson has one task ahead of him if he is to stymie the deal.
He must persuade the competition regulators to say no. With these ads, I
assume he is trying to do one of more of three things: put a case to the
Office of Fair Trading, CAA and ministers via the media, as has been
Virgin’s consistent style; enlist public support, hoping that
individuals will send sackloads of protests to the regulators; or raise
Virgin Atlantic’s profile.
I’m afraid the score will remain blank on all three counts. OFT and
others will have seen the arguments in Virgin’s submission. If the ads
are making new points, the system will wonder why it was not told
directly. Will they persuade the public to express disgust in droves?
Unlikely. This is simply not an issue of major public concern. Branson’s
polling showed that everyone loved his charitable Lottery bid, a mass-
market issue if ever there was one, but he still cut no ice with
Whitehall and this time I doubt whether a few letters will influence it.
Nor will MPs play much part: the decision is still some way away and
Parliament will be in or close to recess before anything happens,
limiting the scope for noise to be directed to ministers.
Lastly, I am sure the adverts have reinforced brand awareness, but if
Branson wants people to fly Virgin why doesn’t he simply take pure
promotional space instead of the one-liner tucked away at the bottom of
What we have here is a clash of cultures. On most lobbying issues, the
system operates through well-prepared arguments, quiet negotiation,
levers being pulled behind closed doors. The Virgin style is radically
different, often giving the impression that it cannot meet a minister
without issuing a press release, making it look as though PR is being
used as a substitute for the techniques familiar and acceptable to
Government. Thus far, the old guard is well on top: most of Virgin’s
attempts to deal with the system, ranging from bids for rail and
broadcasting rights to lobbies on air routes and the Lottery, have been
Virgin is in a sense a victim of its own success. Its extraordinary
ability to command column inches has left a sour taste in the
Government’s mouth because, like it or not, the system hates being PR’d.
It believes that Branson will always make form triumph over substance
and, I suspect, will feel that this case is no different from his other
campaigns. Whatever full pages in national broadsheets cost, I fear that
the money should have stayed in the bank.