Danny Rogers: A comms victory for BA: but at what cost?

As I write, British Airways and Unite are still at each other's throats and a second wave of strikes is planned for the weekend.

Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers

Not only is this the most high-profile industrial dispute of recent years, but a fascinating comms battle, drawing in many different parties, from Downing Street and the Conservatives to rival airlines. The consensus within the media and PR world is that BA has so far played a blinder.

Long-ready for confrontation, BA has been maximising comms resources to take the fight to Unite. On the tactical front, it has issued frequent (upbeat) messages and recorded daily video messages from CEO Willie Walsh.  It has also played the patriotic card, conjuring up a ‘Dunkirk spirit' among non-striking staff to keep planes flying.

By the third day, Unite was beginning to hit back, issuing personal challenges for Walsh (‘Where's Willie?'). But the union's lesser resources  - despite political director Charlie Whelan's left-wing contacts - mean its PR offensive looks lacklustre in comparison.

More significant work has been invested on the strategic side. Unite has, understandably, been leveraging its funding power within the Labour Party. However, Gordon Brown realises he must tread carefully to avoid alienating voters,
so cannot actively support the strike, further weakening Unite's hand.

BA knows this and has a clever counter-strategy. For months, the airline has been briefing stakeholders such as key customers, editors and the City about having to ‘take on' the unions to improve margins.

This strategy proved successful, as witnessed by BA's gradually climbing share price since the beginning of the year (£1.86 on 31 December to £2.40 by 22 March). However, the dispute could be inflicting until-now unseen damage at brand level. PRWeek's reputation survey (page 24) reveals that the public is losing patience with BA's travails and shifting favour to rival brands.

As any industrial strike goes on, it inevitably becomes a battle of nerves. And, unfortunately, it is customers that are increasingly inconvenienced by something in which they may have little ideological interest. BA may face down the unions and even emerge with a stronger-looking balance sheet as a result. But then the hard work really begins for its marketing,

PR and customer service staff. Unfortunately it will be up to them to win over an increasingly embittered, sceptical and less brand-loyal consumer. 

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