Baggage crisis is PR’s fault

How Heathrow Terminal 5 became a BA public relations mess headlines the Telegraph’s view on the catastrophe taking off at the new operation.

Normally, I would be arguing this is an operational management mess not a “PR disaster”, but in this case, I think the journalists are right.

Remember all the pre-opening hype?  This is the “amazing project” promising to make “connecting the world simple and pleasurable again”.  The rhetoric was all about ease, convenience, smoothness, fun and joy – delivering “outstanding experience”.  There were “trial runs” with a variety of stakeholders – but as I cited when stating a successful launch is essential for BA, BAA and the UK government:

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.

So all the PR attention seems to have been on the razzmatazz of the Queen’s opening visit and generating pre-launch headlines.  Of course, the baggage crisis isn’t PR’s fault, but the way the issue has been managed is.  Basic information for the media and the passengers was lacking when the problem first emerged – were there no plans in place to communicate more than admitting to “teething problems.”

How come it has taken more than a day for the normally vocal Willie Walsh, British Airways chief executive, to admit to major problems, whilst the director of operations was caught on camera running (with his minder) from the media?  Surely the mighty BA PR team know better than this?

It isn’t surprising that BAA has remained silent since its inability to understand the role of PR in the UK is already proven.  And, despite backing T-5 just a couple of weeks ago, Secretary of State for Transport Ruth Kelly has been unwilling to comment on the emerging fiasco.

Of course, the new head of corporate communications at BA, Julia Simpson, was a former government advisor – touted as a “comms supremo” with a boast of being “used to working with great leaders.”

Not much PR leadership in evidence at present – and rather pathetic to blame a lack of information about what was going on at T-5.  It is PR’s job in a crisis to ensure it has a process of gathering information. 

The level of online coverage of the story alone highlights the fact that without any updates from the company, the comments of the public and direct experiences would be the main story.

There is an adage about failing to plan meaning planning to fail.  What is particularly odd in this case is that there has been plenty of planning, but maybe also complacency in believing their own PR hype rather than thinking through the minutiae of “what if?”

One of the reasons why, when teaching crisis management, I always include chaos and complexity theories – because if one thing is for certain, you can’t believe your plans will be reflected 100% in reality when a problem occurs.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

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