July 15, 2010
After Two Failed Attempts at Antitrust Immunity, Weber Shandwick-American Airlines Campaign Makes Third Time a CharmBy Jim Bucci
The airline industry had been hit hard by the economic slowdown, high oil prices and other events of 2008. American Airlines felt that strong alliances with other airlines would ensure viability in the industry. In order to work more closely with other airlines, which included British Airways and Iberia, they applied for antitrust immunity from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Already turned down twice for immunity and in fear of a third rejection, American Airlines along with British Airways and Iberia partnered with Weber Shandwick for a public affairs program to gather support for the application.
They reviewed similar antitrust applications and interviewed experts. The research showed that early action would be critical in order to gain support and thwart opposition.
The Challenge: Make a Third Application for Antitrust Immunity a Charm. "The Biggest challenge was overcoming the perception that the two failed attempts for antitrust immunity would automatically doom this effort," explained Weber Shandwick senior vice president Ryan Mikolasik. "Also, educating stakeholders and influencers about how market conditions—including a new air travel treaty between the United States and the European Union (EU)—had changed and would now play in favor of American Airlines' effort."
He adds: "Another big challenge involved fighting off a detractor with a celebrity CEO whose mere presence often made news."
Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., British Airways' main competition in the U.K., publicly stated his opposition, voicing disapproval at the initiative, stating it could "blatantly harm competition and the consumer."
The Strategy: Use Website MoreTravelChoices.com as Campaign's Educational and Support Generating Centerpiece. "This was a two-phased public affairs campaign designed to both educate constituents about why this effort for immunity was different than previous attempts and to generate support from customers, employees, shareholders and public officials for the filing," offered Mikolasik.
Ultimately, only the federal regulators at the U.S. Department of Transportation would decide the merits of the case, but it was imperative for Weber Shandwick to take preventative measures to ensure opponents' voices did not dominate the marketplace.
Media, analysts, elected government officials, American Airlines advocates and employees were proactively engaged through various channels and provided background and information on the application and why the airline felt this application should be approved by the Department of Transportation.
They set up an educational website, www.MoreTravelChoices.com, as an advocacy tool and information resource for travelers in the U.S. and parts of Europe. One important section of the website included a letter of support that could be downloaded by customers and government officials to be sent to the Department of Transportation.
"Special focus was also placed on constituents and elected officials in markets served by American Airlines and British Airways as they could see the greatest benefit from immunization of the airline alliance partners and were called on to voice support," says Mikolasik.
The Results: Positive Press Paves the Way for Antitrust Approval. After submitting its application in August 2008, American Airlines received tentative approval from the United States Department of Transportation on Saturday, February 13, 2010. American Airlines, British Airways and Iberia operate a joint business between North America and Europe.
"The program helped obtain its objective as the DOT granted tentative approval for American Airlines' application and final approval is expected soon," says Mikolasik. "The results of the campaign far exceeded expectations of the stakeholders in that nearly 500 elected and public officials from across the United States sent letters in support of American's bid."
"Lastly, MoreTravelChoices.com became not only the central clearinghouse for information on the issue for media, but enabled us to reach a broad audience and also served as the battle cry for the larger effort."
Prior to approval by DOT, the team gained support from key industry analysts and pitched the media, which resulted in more than 100 placements, including hits in the Financial Times, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, BusinessWeek and the Associated Press.
In addition, more than 2,000 letters of support were sent to the Department of Transportation, including letters from governors, mayors and members of the House and Senate.
Secrets of Success: Read on as Mikolasik offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Bronze in "Best Use of the Internet—Business" at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity.
Involve the stakeholders in the planning early on. "By working closely from the very start with government affairs, legal, employee and customer communications groups, we were able to have a solid plan that served all interests well," he says.
Use a simple approach, especially when communicating a complicated issue. "Using the right tools for the job is smart for any project, including keeping it simple whenever possible," he explains. "For example, we looked at various functionality capabilities for the website, but decided it was best to keep it to basic facts, straight and to the point. Using a short video was also helpful in communicating what was a very complex issue."
Respond to inaccuracies quickly. "As we all know, the Internet can act as a tool to help spread your message or hurt you by spreading the wrong one," he offers. "Move quickly on wire services especially—they tend to have the broadest reach."
WINNER'S PROFILE: Now a division of Interpublic Group, NYSE: IPG, Weber Shandwick is a global public relations agency, providing strategy and execution across practices such as consumer marketing, healthcare, technology, public affairs, corporate/financial and crisis management. Its specialized services include digital/social media, advertising, market research and corporate responsibility.