Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check

21 January 2010


BA unions in retreat over cabin crew

Unite, the union representing BA cabin crew, has postponed the threat of industrial action until after the Easter holidays to allow “families to be able to plan their travel arrangements in confidence”. That would appear to be a good PR move, but it isn’t.

In front of the public, the union now stands embarrassed and apologetic about its threatening behaviour at Xmas.

In front of its members, the union is demoralizing its most ardent activists, and it is reminding their less militant colleagues how head-strong and damaging were the tactics the union first pursued.

In front of BA’s management, the union’s dilemma is crystal clear. BA’s cabin crews’ mood is becoming by the day more realistic and resigned as the union loses its grip on its own members and events.

Of course, all this will help secure a negotiated settlement, or it will lead the union into taking industrial action that lacks the punch to do anything more than lead the cabin crew to defeat because the strike lacks both conviction and support.

The one lesson that PRs need to take note of – which I’m afraid is not yet on most of our radars – is that BA created its own monster. BA put its cabin crew at the centre of its PR, marketing and brand ambassadorial promotion to the world. BA cabin crew were heralded as the key component of what made BA “the world’s favourite airline”.

But the BA experience – and the alternative methods employed by the likes of Ryanair – should modify the thoughts of trendy PRs who think they have some new magic via internal comms to use employees as a PR stage army on the employers’ behalf.

As I said last year about the BA affair, BA cabin crew believed their own PR and then got angry when they realised that their needs were secondary to the survival of the mother ship. The reality was that their “unhappiness and discontent” didn’t really matter much to the company or to the public.

Over the years, the cabin crew had not much changed but perception of them had. They’d lost the gloss of being big sisters in the sky. They had gone from being slightly bossy friends to dreary smug over-paid self-seekers. Maybe that was BA’s mistake. They patronised us for years and encouraged their staff to be agents of the airline’s superiority. Wasn’t this after all, Bomber Command with trolly dollies? Neither the airline nor their staff nor their union noticed that one of the Ryanair effects was to make flying more like coach travel.

5 responses to “BA unions in retreat over cabin crew”

  1. Alan Brighty says:

    Good summary Paul. But don’t overlook the fact that not everyone is as perceptive as you. The public might be impressed but will take the cheapest airline anyway. The ardent activists are too blinded by their own agenda to notice anything else and their less militant colleagues are only in the union in the first place because no one would speak to them if they were not.

    But I’m in total agreement that using employees or boards of directors as lynch pins of a PR campaign is complete folly.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by roman, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog now: BA unions in retreat over cabincrew […]

  3. Heather Yaxley says:

    Whilst agreeing that the Union has not handled this well – I feel it could have taken a higher ground in terms of how it responded post-Christmas to take some initiative to resolve the situation more creatively than the same old strike tool.

    But, I’m not convinced that the lesson is to avoid presenting employees at the heart of a brand. The issue with such approaches is a mismatch in reality and marketing hype. If staff and customer service truly are at the heart of a brand then there is no danger in the public understanding this – indeed, they will be communicating the same message through word of mouth.

    However, in the case of BA, I never felt that their cabin staff were even the best in the industry, let alone the epitome of excellent customer service. So, yes BA did create a monster – because the organisation and its staff believed the hype and didn’t match this to the reality.

    There a a lot of other management issues at BA affecting the relationships with staff which has a knock-on to customers and public relations. For example, I was on a BA flight last year when a flight attendant refused to help an older passenger lift her bag into the overhead lockers saying that if he hurt himself doing so, the company wouldn’t support any resulting sickleave. That created a very negative impression and was pure jobsworthness. Obviously another passenger lifted the bag up.

    Effective internal comms is not a “trendy PR” thought, but good business sense. But what that means is really engaging with staff and communicating more honestly about problems rather than just misusing the “employees are our greatest asset” mantra. Survival of the mothership shouldn’t be distinct from employee needs, even if that means some employees needs must be met on another starshipl or voyage!

    For an airline, the staff are vitally important (even for Ryanair and lower service-oriented brands). Their “unhappiness and discontent” does matter to the public when it results in service that is way below even basic expectations. (We could have the Ryanair attitude to disabled passengers debate here!)

    Being made redundant or putting up with lower standards of employment are frequently facts of our working lives – but organisations can still ensure they treat staff with respect in such circumstances. Besides companies need to maintain the morale of those who are still onboard – whether that is the passenger or the airline crew.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I’m not sure we are really disagreeing, at least not much. Most of your comment supports my position. Moreover, I’m all for having employees onside with their employers, and I believe it is wise to seek to keep them onside as advocates in the wider world where possible. I’m also in favour of open, interactive communication between employees and employers, and I certainly don’t believe in creating friction for the sake of it.

    But, and it is a big but, the world is conflicted, and conflict is part of reality. Let me give an example. My dad spent his life doing a job he loved working on the back of a London bus serving a public he loved to serve well. But he was a trade union militant who hated the bosses and everything they stood for. He would never have wanted to be aligned with their outlook – no more they would wanted to have been aligned with his. He moaned relentlessly about pay and conditions and management incompetence. Yet my father was happy in his misery and dressed smartly, ran his bus on time, and never took sickies as a matter of pride (but he did strike, sometimes).

    On another tack, doing good work and feeling happy are very often – perhaps more often than not – not connected because somehow people just get on and do it well for selfish motivations or get fired or move on (all options facing BA cabin crew). There’s cognitive dissonance there, and False Consciousness, too. That’s us, we’re not consistent, and we just have to deal with it. But BA and its workers both just lost the plot.

  5. Heather Yaxley says:

    Agree – there was classic us and them going on which creates barriers rather than healthy conflict. I’m actually in favour of conflict as it is the grit that can make the pearl in reality. If organisations, and all the players inside and outside of them, are never challenged, they can become complacent and stuck in a comfort zone. Then one day, they see the world has changed and its much more painful to address the challenges they face and get out of the comfortable rut.