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British Airways – Turning a drama into a crisis

British Airways – Turning a drama into a crisis

By Peter Duncan

There can be few markets that have changed more over the last twenty years than the airline industry. Most of the changes have been positive, but not all of them.

For example, I’m old enough to remember when you got onto an aircraft using the airbridge and not just up steps from a (wet and windy) tarmac. I remember when the average domestic and short haul international flight cost hundreds and not tens of pounds – although you got free peanuts on board. And I remember when British Airways genuinely was the world’s favourite airline.

Not any more. The events of the last few days have demonstrated that reputation can be lost in a weekend, when it has been so carefully constructed over years. How many of those who have spent hours and days waiting to check-in for cancelled BA flights will think twice before repeating their booking? I’d guess the majority. How many of those who are now making travel plans for the future, and given a choice between two airlines, will chose the one that isn’t BA? Probably a fair proportion. If I was International Airline Group (IAG), I’d be ready for a shocking set of results from my BA division this year, and recovery is not guaranteed.

For me, there are two parts to this financial and reputational disaster. The appalling way that BA has handled the crisis, and where next to position the brand for the future.

The crisis communications industry is full of smart ideas on how to minimise reputational damage, but the most obvious way is to avoid the disaster happening in the first place, which in the case of BA strikes at the very heart of positioning the brand.

You can’t help but believe that BA is stuck in a branding no man’s land. It is neither (any more) a genuinely premium brand, where consumers are willing to pay for the experience. Gone are the free in-flight catering options, and doubtless the free bag check-in will be the next victim of the cost-cutting regime. Gone is the feeling that paying for a BA ticket is a statement of prestige travel. Yet, it is not a budget airline, completely unable to compete with the Ryanair/Easyjet/Norwegian type operation that is taking over the world, one airport at a time.

If it’s not a budget carrier, and it’s not a premium travel experience, what is it? What is the offer that will bring a new generation of travellers to the door of future BA flights. Yes, they still have a massive route network, and the landing slots that can lock out the competition from key airports. They still also have a brand that implies a national importance dating from a long forgotten era. However, with Ryanair market capitalisation sitting a decent way north of €20bn, a level almost double that of the entire IAG group, is there any way back?

This weekend’s crisis will not be forgotten easily. The company has seemed remote, inaccessible and, worst of all, arrogant in the early stages of its response. A particular mention should go to the genius who signed off the quote provided to the media on Saturday afternoon, expecting that flights would be “largely back to normal” the following day. The first rule of dealing with a public relations crisis is that you never, never, promise something that you cannot guarantee. Pretending and hoping that the situation will improve is not something that will in any way improve the situation. What will improve it is being honest, available and realistic.

My general rule is that any statement should simply cover off three things: regret, reason and remedy. Regret that the failure has happened and apologise to everyone affected, explain the reason why the failure occurred, and what you are doing to remedy the situation. Never embellish, never over-promise and always over deliver. This weekend has featured a string of opportunities where a different PR approach could have been taken by BA, and their failure to do so will be expensive. Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that this could be terminal for the brand?

The airline industry has changed hugely over the last generation, but I am reminded of the different approach to a crisis taken by Michael Bishop in the aftermath of the Kegworth air disaster in 1989. He was at the crash-site (admittedly it happened near the East Midlands base of the airline that was later to become BMI) within hours of the tragedy, took personal responsibility and assumed control.

Compare that approach with BA’s dreadful use of youtube video statements from their Chief Executive. For hours and days, BA have seemed remote and uncaring, removed from the chaos unfolding at airports around them. A video recorded of the CEO wearing a high-vis jacket doesn’t make you think he is connected and caring – and I bet the advice from the BA communications team was contrary to the reality. And it didn’t help to email staff warning them not to contact the media, either.

A badly positioned brand with no obvious place in the market faces an uphill battle to recover, but one which is seen by the public to be cool, distant and uncaring faces a battle of a wholly different magnitude.

British Airways was already a brand in trouble. It was already a drama, but it’s now a crisis.