BA may have won the PR battle, but are they losing the consumer war?

Along with the number of flights that allegedly got off the ground, British Airways would no doubt have been celebrating the union media campaign that never even reached the runway during the recent staff strikes.

According to PR Week, BA have their cunning digital PR campaign to thank ‘appearing in pastel shirts and casual jumpers, Walsh appeared a paragon of relaxation. Set in front of sunny open plan offices, his lilting brogue was the most resonant element of the direct to YouTube productions.’

BA of course gave a stong delivery ofthe positives; ‘it’s great to see people sticking with BA’. The key messages around ‘good atmosphere’ and ‘keeping BA flying’ were repeated to good effect. It was a strategy that by-passed the need to speak to those pesky journos, which in turn meant an avoidance of any difficult questioning on the reason the staff were striking in the first place.
‘TV news even ran the videos, circumventing the traditional route for crisis comms. A fine week in the face of left-wing turbulence.’

I have to say, I was sitting with a striking member of BA watching all of this on Sky News and his reaction was of total disbelief – “it’s a total farce! There are no where near as many planes taking off as he’s portraying and our side is not being represented whatsoever.” There was no communication whatsoever of the exact reasoning behind the strike which meant of course the there was no way the the general public would be sympathising with the BA staff. There was minimal union/staff coverage in the form of reporting from the picket line. If I’d been a BA customer without the full facts I’d have been furious.

Focusing on the customer helped BA to wins the hearts and minds of the public there’s no doubt about that. They certainly won that battle. But what of the long-term effect to BA’s reputation (not to mention the £45m it allegedly cost them)?

In a separate PR Week article, it was argued that despite an improving share price, the issue of ongoing strikes has damaged the public perception of airline British Airways. ‘Ongoing strikes and the threat of further action have seen British Airways lose ground to rival Virgin Atlantic in the eyes of the public, according to new research. ‘When asked which airline they would prefer to fly with, 49 per cent of the 3,000 respondents to PRWeek/OnePoll’s latest survey chose Virgin Atlantic. When asked what characteristics they would associate with BA, 42 per cent cited industrial disputes and 55 per cent said the airline was ‘expensive’.

Just nine per cent associated it with value for money – which is significant, as 56 per cent of respondents said price was the most important factor when choosing an airline. While 31 per cent said threat of strike action made them less likely to book a flight with BA during the strike period, 40 per cent said it made them less likely to book a flight with BA in the long term. The ongoing industrial disputes have had a negative effect on the reputations of BA chief executive Willie Walsh, the cabin crew at BA and trade union Unite. In total 70 per cent said none of those had enhanced their reputation during the spat.’

On PR representative summed it up nicely ‘BA has a mountain to climb if is to win back public sympathy. Its tone needs to be more humble, it needs to rebuild staff relations, and it needs to invest more in customer service.’

Survey of 3,000 members of the public conducted by global research agency OnePoll.

Gemma Carey, Bluewood Training Ltd

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