Public Relations Campaigns Help Airlines Confront Challenges Post 9/11

After September 11, 2001, the airline industry was devastated. Sales were down tremendously, fuel prices skyrocketed and many airlines were forced to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Over the next several years, each of the legacy airlines, including Delta, JetBlue, AirTran, Southwest and American, responded to their own financial and regulatory challenges by tackling issues with salient, well-crafted public relations campaigns.

Banktupt airlines Source: News on 6

Banktupt airlines
Source: News on 6

According to a 2006 CNN article, losses of $42 billion in the years following 9/11 helped to consolidate the airlines and tighten their belts. The legacy carriers, American, Delta, United, the former Continental, Northwest and US Airways, reduced their employment by 38 percent and trimmed their fleets by 23 percent, according to Jon Heimlich, Chief Economist for the Air Transport Association. Needless to say, all the airlines faced financial challenges and needed to confront significantly decreased profit margins. Airlines have trivial profit margins and little money for PR; their campaigns generally center around addressing specific crises and tend to avoid extravagant and “fluffy” campaigns to build consumer happiness. In 2005, Delta Airlines filed for bankruptcy protection. Only 14 months later, in November 2006, US Airways bid to “take over” Delta and the carrier was forced to convince its creditors that it could emerge from bankruptcy alone. Delta hired Ketchum to convince Capitol Hill and the Departments of Justice and Transportation that a merger would not benefit anyone and would violate trust laws.

Keep Delta my Delta launches

The team began its campaign with only several days to conduct primary and secondary research. Delta initiated analyses, state by state, to determine attitudes across the country about a merger. They found that the public did not favor the idea of a merger because they believed it would increase fares, reduce choices and limit service. More importantly, they found that the Department of Justice would not likely approve the merger, and that domestic service between the two airlines significantly overlap, which became an essential talking point and component of the campaign.

The campaign had no overarching goals, but three objectives:

  • To stop the hostile takeover (which should have been considered the goal)
  • To convince policymakers that US Airways’ proposal was flawed, and would present ultimate consequences for everyone, and to
  • Create doubt with Delta’s creditors about the benefits of the takeover.

The campaign’s publics included Delta employees, retirees, frequent flyers, state and local officials and specific policymakers. Ketchum also identified people who would “change the discussion from a business story about mergers and acquisitions to a front page story about the survival of an airline. The identity of these people and their professions are unclear.

Delta Airlines CEO Gerald Grinstein signs the petition. Source: NBC news

Delta Airlines CEO Gerald Grinstein signs the petition.
Source: NBC news

Ketchum and Delta worked extensively on planning and identifying targeted strategies. Its first strategy was to “shift the airline merger debate to Delta’s terms,” its second was to focus communications efforts on key members of the House and Senate, and its third was to “mobilize an army of supporters to oppose the merger publicly” so that policymakers would see Delta’s side of the story. Its budget was not large; the airline only spent $750,000 to save its reputation, and literally its existence.

Delta involved its employees to create the campaign’s tagline: “Keep Delta My Delta. They created a website where visitors could learn about the campaign and hopefully understand that the deal would have negative effects for everyone. On the day the website went live, Delta’s pilots’ union and employees staged a 5,000-person rally at the Georgia International Convention Center to oppose the bid from US Airways. The team also developed an online petition that supporters could sign, which was used on Capitol Hill to demonstrate the public’s opposition to the merger. Delta placed ads in major daily print publications on December 20 to emphasize its position. To improve its ethos, the team rallied local legislators and community leaders to participate in “Delta Day” events and publish opinion pieces in local media. Finally, the team enlisted Business Travel Coalition and Southeast Tourism Society to publicly support the initiative through testimony at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

Source: Ketchum

Source: Ketchum

In its evaluation, Delta found that the team created a “groundswell of opposition to US Airways” and earned more than 220 million media impressions. They generated more than 150,000 letters to Washington policymakers and created a coalition of consumer groups, elected officials and community leaders who issued public statements opposing the merger. Most importantly, on January 31, 2007, Delta’s creditors announced their support for Delta, US Airways dropped its bid hours later, and the airline took home a Silver Anvil.

Delta was savvy to involve employees to create the campaign slogan. Aside from saving money, the company helped its employees participate in the campaign and have their voices heard. Involving the whole company makes a better work environment and demonstrates that senior management is concerned about junior and mid-level staff, and not only about saving face from US Airways. They effectively created coalitions of support, which ultimately helped shaped the conversation in Washington and influence the outcome.

Richmond brings fliers home

Another PR case about driving business goals involves Richmond International Airport and its low cost carriers. In 2011, the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce decided that locals were not purchasing enough airfares on low cost airlines. The government hired Hipple&Co to conduct a PR campaign, which ultimately increased ridership for non-legacy carriers and convinced Southwest Airlines to begin serving Richmond. The campaign was designed to convince local business travelers to choose AirTran and JetBlue over traditional legacy carriers, such as Delta, Northwest, American, United and US Airways. Hipple used qualitative and quantitative research to determine best strategies to tackle the campaign. They conducted focus groups with business travelers and corporate travel managers from the region’s largest companies and surveyed 500 business travelers. The team gleaned two important findings from its research: messaging must hold each individual accountable for keeping fares competitive, and that scheduling and frequent flyer loyalties are significant barriers to individuals choosing new carriers.

The campaign had three objectives:

  • Educate the local business community about the importance of protecting airline competition,
  • Shift purchasing preferences to low cost carriers
  • Secure Southwest service to Richmond. The target public was very specific: males, ages 39-54, frequent business travelers and business leaders.

The campaign’s implementation involved reaching individual travelers and convincing them to purchase AirTran and JetBlue flights, and describing the economic impact of less airline competition. Its strategies included outreach to local business leadership to rally their support, outreach to individual business travelers, media relations and social media. The team used many tactics to rally local support. They formed alliances with business and community groups to foster support, including the Management Round Table, formed of local CEOs, the Retail Merchants Association, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Rotary. Many companies required their employees to only fly with low cost carriers, and the CEO of Dominion Resources became a spokesperson for the campaign. The team also scored a cover story on the Richmond Times-Dispatch and coverage on four newscasts and websites. They hosted a Save Low Fares Day event at Richmond International Airport, which featured officials from four of the jurisdictions in the metro region who signed proclamations for airline competition. Hipple also identified advertising as an important component, and targeted business people with print ads in the local paper, ads on NPR, TV and a billboard outside the airport. Finally, the team used social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to attract consumers.

The Save Low Fares website suggests action items for locals:

  • Book business and personal travel on low cost carriers
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate with employees about the important role and responsibility they have to preserve airline competition.
  • Review corporate travel policies. Make sure planners emphasize AirTran and JetBlue as part of their overall planning.
  • Establish corporate travel accounts with AirTran and JetBlue to make it easier to plan and track corporate travel.
  • Review travel and expense reports to ensure employees are choosing low cost carriers.

When Southwest Airlines decided to begin serving Richmond, Hipple knew they had scored big. The story was on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and was the lead story on local broadcast and online media. AirTran ridership increased by 17 percent in February, AirTran and JetBlue witnessed a long term increase in sales and the campaign took home a Silver Anvil.

Although the program won a coveted award, its execution wasn’t perfect. Its publics were too specific, and perhaps the Chamber could have broadened its appeal. Aside from men 39-54, they could have targeted men above 54 who still travel on business, as well as female business travelers. Additionally, the campaign’s strategies were not specific enough. Strategies three and four read, “Media relations, & Social media.” The two phrases are not strategies themselves; they are only tactics or strategies when used to further an objective. The document later states that the team developed social media sites, but it doesn’t list the number of followers or media impressions generated on the platforms. Probably the smartest strategy it used was to target businesses more than individuals. Most people traveling choose the cheapest option and can’t afford to pay more to fly a particular airline. However, many corporations have bottomless budgets for travel, and took advantage of this campaign by positioning themselves as masters of corporate social responsibility.

Although it made some mistakes in the planning and evaluation stages by targeting too narrow an audience and not listing media impressions, generally the campaign closely followed the RPIE (research, planning, implementation and evaluation) rubric. Each objective and strategy was carefully mapped out and planned, which led to its ultimate success.

American Airlines tackles the tone

Similarly, American Airlines also launched a campaign to change the conversation surrounding its several quarters of losses and potential bankruptcy throughout 2010 and 2011. The campaign’s goal was to secure media coverage to steer the conversation and to change negative public perception about the airline by announcing that the company had secured brand new, state-of-the-art aircraft. Its major strategy was to announce the acquisition of the aircraft, the biggest aircraft purchase in history, on the same day it announced major losses for Q2. Key messaging in the media indicated that American would have the industry’s newest, most fuel-efficient fleet in five years.

The airline hired Weber Shandwick to target business travelers, media and analysts who wondered if the airline could turn itself around, and employees and investors who feared layoffs and service suspensions. The team used several tactics, including a news conference at Dallas Airport about the new planes, which attracted 60 journalists, 2,000 people and 3,000 tweets. The event was broadcast on YouTube, which was an effective tactic and tool for nonlocal reporters to utilize. The entire campaign was structured around this event, and yet the team did not know whether the purchase would be cleared until days before the news conference. They featured the new planes at the event and joked about the CEOs of Boeing and Airbus sitting at the same table. The team took a large risk in planning and coordinating for an event that could have magnified American’s losses, and they were lucky to be successful and that the order was accepted. The team also used traditional media relations, and satellite interviews with American Airlines executives aired in five national broadcast outlet shows.

American Airlines at Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport Source: ABC news

American Airlines at Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport
Source: ABC news

In its evaluation, the team determined that the campaign had been successful. Although the campaign was structured around messaging and tone, and didn’t focus on output objectives, 470 placements, plus social media, are a good indicator of success. The campaign generated 360 million total media impressions on the aircraft order, the news conference garnered 12 million impressions and 80 percent of media coverage the day of the event focused on key messages of the purchase. An American Airlines spokeswoman announced that the airline will have the youngest fleet in the industry in five years because of the purchase, which was positive messaging during a rocky time.

Although the campaign was ultimately successful, and won a PR Daily award, it was risky business, and it could have enormously failed. The team should not have planned the event until they were certain the purchase would be cleared, because if the orders had not been accepted, the news conference would have been canceled and the failed purchase would have compounded news about the airline’s quarterly losses. Additionally, the campaign probably could have framed the losses in a positive way and tied it to the campaign instead of ignoring them. They could have also used more social media and developed those channels instead of mostly turning to traditional media. Further, the campaign’s objectives were unclear or nonexistent, and they blurred with the primary goal.

The Silver Anvil goes to…

Delta’s was by far the best campaign. Because it was a crisis campaign that addressed the hostile takeover, its strategies and tactics were specific and targeted. The airline’s use of employees to generate a network of support, and its rallying of local politicians and businesses, helped it effectively become an unstoppable coalition. Additionally, the program’s goal was clear: to stop the US Airways proposal. When campaigns have clear and measurable objectives, it is easier to measure their success.  Ultimately Delta secured a tangible change in behavior, or output objectives, while American achieved its impact objectives. Interestingly, all three campaigns conducted events, which significantly helped attract attention and are a good tool for a PR program.

The Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce also had clear objectives, which helped the local government tackle the campaign effectively and made it viable to measure its success. Southwest announcing its service to Richmond, and increased ridership on AirTran and JetBlue, indicated that the campaign had been effective. Additionally, it effectively used local celebrities, a tactic the two other campaigns failed to do. In Richmond’s case, it was extremely effective, because locals know and respect politicians and business leaders, and those celebrities helped shaped the conversation. Additionally, it was extremely effective to target businesses as well as individuals to promote the program, because most people flying choose the cheapest fares and can’t afford to be choosy about their airline. But businesses can afford to pay a little more to fly specific airlines, and can mandate their employees do so. Moreover, simply instating a travel policy in one business ensures that potentially hundreds of employees fly low cost carriers, which translates to hundreds of trips per participating business.

Jaffe PR says…

Where Richmond was lacking was in its target publics, which could have been widened. The Chamber could have targeted men above age 54, as well as middle-aged women, because these demographics also travel for business and pleasure. Another strategy the Chamber could have used would be to involve AirTran and JetBlue in the campaigns. The government was a spokesperson endorsing the two airlines, which seems strange to the average citizen. Involving the airlines in the campaigns and offering freebies on flights could have been an effective tool to enlist the support of major companies and help the public understand the campaign better.

American Airlines, on the other hand, did not conduct a measurable or specific campaign, and therefore its effectiveness cannot really be determined.  It scored major coverage; 80 percent of coverage the day of the launch was positive, but other than media analysis it’s difficult to evaluate the campaign. It was a risky decision to conduct the conference, because if the purchase had not been cleared the headlines would have had a more negative tone and it could have meant a large spike in the airline’s reputation. The airline did master one strategy: messaging. It effectively targeted messages and conversations and did its best with a tricky situation to predict behaviors and change them.

Because each campaign addressed a different issue and took a different approach, it is difficult to determine which program was the best. However, Delta’s program was the most detail-oriented and effective, particularly because of its use of celebrity and coalitions and involving its staff. Richmond’s was effective, and similar to Delta’s in several aspects, but not particularly creative. American’s program was effective, but difficult to measure and determine what its objectives were. In sum, although Delta’s was the best organized and creative, each campaign addressed a different public relations issue, and comparing their approaches and responses is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Works Cited

“American Airlines Turns Nation’s Attention to Flying and Its Future Post-bankruptcy.” PR Daily. N.p., n.d. Web.

“American Airlines Charts Future With Largest Aircraft Order in Aviation History.” Weber Shandwick. Web.

“The Campaign to save Low Fares: Protecting Airline Competition.” PRSA (2012): n. pag. Web.

Isadore, Chris. “Airlines Would Have Changed, with or without 9/11 Attacks.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 08 Sept. 2006. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.

“”Keep Delta My Delta”” Ketchum. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.

“Save Low Fares Richmond!” Save Low Fares Richmond! N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.

“Saying NO! to US Airways Hostile Takeover Bid: The Campaign to Keep Delta My Delta.” (2008): n. pag. PRSA. Web.