United can stand down – BA’s flying the flag of failure now

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

The world’s favourite airline? British Airways certainly wasn’t even Britain’s favourite over the holiday weekend as it stepped forward in the running for PR Raspberry Award of all time.

We thought we’d seen the worst with the United ‘Friendly Skies’ Airlines PR debacle when it forcibly ejected a paying passenger from an overbooked plane, but BA’s catastrophic computer crash has sent both company reputation and share value into an even sharper nosedive.

Shares in BA’s parent company International Airlines Group (IAG) fell 2.7% in Madrid on Monday leaving the group a cool £360m down. When the London markets opened, shares were down 4% and that’s before we even get to the compensation bill that could reach £150m.

These are losses that could have been mitigated through efficient PR. With hundreds of flights cancelled and an estimated 75,000 passengers left stranded, you’d hope to see a well-oiled machine leap into action to prioritise customer comfort and reassurance, and to keep everyone informed. It didn’t and they weren’t.

A crisis like this calls for carefully conceived, well-rehearsed, jet-propelled public relations, but PR was thin on the ground at Heathrow and Gatwick, ground that was soon covered with BA’s distressed and angry passengers when they failed to find anywhere else to sleep.

Meanwhile the company’s critics were blaming cost cutting for the calamity – in particular, last March’s redundancies in the UK-based IT department as BA hived off that part of the business to Indian data centres.

BA, of course, denied that outsourcing was the issue. They say a power outage at home caused the meltdown. Still, an acrid whiff of cost-cutting hangs over the carrier.

Back in March this year, IAG was reported to be plotting a low-cost expansion as it hit a record first quarter profit. IAG’s Willie Walsh wanted to expand Barcelona-based airline Level, just two months after it launched. Clearly the same low-cost culture was enveloping BA, a supposedly premium luxury brand.

Perhaps it was slow to respond because the PR manager had left and was still yet to be replaced. A glance at LinkedIn shows that two weeks ago BA posted an ad for a global PR manager, based at Harmondsworth. The package is apparently excellent and the ad has had around 550 views, but there doesn't seem to have been any takers yet.

It says the applicant needs to be able to ‘drive positive brand awareness’ and have ‘sound judgement to manage risk and reputational issues’, but none of that was on show as BA floundered in the face of IT failure on a massive scale.

A queue 50 football pitches long was soon snaking outside Heathrow Terminal 5 as passengers found neither accommodation nor sustenance, yet BA’s first move was to put out a statement denying the IT failure was its fault.

It said: “We would never compromise the integrity and security of our IT systems. IT services are now provided globally by a range of suppliers and this is a very common practice across all industries”. As if anyone facing a night on a yoga mat at Heathrow could give a damn.

Indian data centres might be acceptable for non-critical data requirements, but not when lives depend on it and critics have been watching this disaster loom on the horizon like an iceberg on course for the Titanic.

BA was warned continuously that cutting corners with IT was a recipe for disaster. In the past year, other airlines have suffered flight disruption caused by computer outages, yet BA appears to have failed to learn any lessons from its rivals’ troubles.

Instead, we saw BA go on the offensive, blaming airport operations for the problem – rich considering the only airline affected was BA, that it happened at both Heathrow and Gatwick and that not only on-the-ground operations but also BA’s website and call centres were affected. And so BA was caught out in a lie.

Rather than put its hands up immediately and admit fault, BA torturously took its time before defensively announcing it would provide “reasonable” out-of-pocket expenses.

Incredibly for a company in the luxury customer service sector, no one was automatically offered a hotel room or refreshments. Once Twitter’s touch paper was lit, news spread like wildfire as people desperately searched for a hotel room near Heathrow while condemning BA for being of no help whatsoever.

That social media firestorm may well have seen the last vestiges of BA’s luxury premium brand image go up in smoke while the carrier strips away any remaining frills, even making people pay for food and drink on short haul flights.

To add more fuel to the flames, it had the audacity to call the disaster a mere “glitch”, as if passengers were overreacting to the stress such chaos causes. It’s no small matter when, like The Drum editor Stephen Lepitak, you’re still unable to contact anyone to ask what’s happening about your missing luggage a full two days after your flight has landed.

Email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com

Twitter. @6hillgrove

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