It is no secret that I don’t like London (Dante’s) Heathrow airport and a recent experience with British Airways was both incredibly expensive and disappointing – indeed, as my father is still in intensive care in Toulouse, I’ve flown over three times in as many weeks, and the low-cost airlines are winning in price and customer service, hands-down.
So I was interested to receive a BA Club member email directing me to the website: Welcome to Terminal 5 as a preview of the facilities that will open on 27 March.
The imagery and language on this special site highlight an “amazing project” promising to make “connecting the world simple and pleasurable again”. The rhetoric focuses on ease, convenience, smoothness, fun and joy. A professional identity is conveyed, making a promise that brand “Terminal 5” will deliver an “outstanding experience”.
The launch planning is highly professional, including “trial runs” with a variety of stakeholders over the past months. This is a mega-brand exercise – and not only for British Airways. The new terminal offers shopping heaven (if that’s your sort of thing) with 112 stores contained in an area bigger than 50 football/soccer fields. Brands have been briefed to offer exclusive products, such as the T-5 Krispy Kreme doughnut. Then there’s over 500 advertising billboards and flat-screen television displays – ensuring passengers will see dozens of selling messages as part of the “outstanding experience”.
With all this focus on marketing, what will be the role of public relations? The views of media who had a preview last week convey all the key messages about passenger flow (80,000 people a day plus 13,000 bags an hour, double the security checkpoints…) and “interesting” narratives – such as rerouting local rivers.
But there is another side to the public relations strategy – particularly in relation to BAA, Heathrow’s owner. Whilst the glitzy press sneaky-peaks were going on at T5, BAA fired its Chief Executive as the Spanish-owned company tries desperately to win over hostile publics, including government, investors and the serious media. And that’s without the focus of savvy activists such as Greenpeace who are just the headline grabbing element of a coalition of active publics fighting against Heathrow’s expansion.
It is six months since BAA lost its heads of corporate affairs and media relations, and the Globe and Mail says its new chief executive (formerly of Severn Water and British Airways) will need his own “extraordinary PR skills”.
Both British Airways and BAA need to focus their public relations on long-term sustainability – which is where T-5 comes in. But you can’t create a good reputation as easily as generating short-term sales in the upmarket retail outlets or in terminal advertising. As John Dalton claims:
Reputation is the sum values that stakeholders attribute to a company, based on their perception and interpretation of the image that the company communicates over time.
A successful launch of T-5 is essential for British Airways, BAA – and the UK government as it gives a better first impression of Britain than existing gateways. But to borrow Martin‘s phrase, PR can’t simply put lipstick on a pig and make it kissable.
Not even pretty pigs can fly.