Winging It

With labor unrest brewing among airline employees, Northwest's PR doctors keep spinning in the wind

Stymied by the Teamsters' message--"Part-time America won't work"--UPS officials retained a private opinion-research firm to polish the company's image. As a result of its findings, UPS then focused its PR efforts on the way employees' pension funds are controlled. But the public didn't care. Twelve days into the strike, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 55 percent of those surveyed supported the Teamsters, with only 27 percent lined up behind UPS. Three days later, the Teamsters won wage hikes and other major concessions, including the creation of 10,000 full-time jobs.

"Ultimately, all the spin doctors in the world can't change reality. But you can kind of put a little shine on it one way or the other," says the Teamsters' Wilson. "Companies like Northwest and UPS have to be concerned about what their customers think in a competitive environment. If I'm an auto-parts company and my customers are GM and Ford, it's not as significant an issue. If a company is selling a product or service to people--in those cases public perception of labor and management issues are increasingly important." In the past decade, Wilson insists, people have learned to vote with their pocketbooks, taking their business elsewhere if they believe a company mistreats its employees. What's more, he adds, beyond influencing the outcome of a single strike, how a labor dispute is perceived may affect whether customers return once the picketers go home.

Bill Hillsman points out that while UPS didn't have much PR expertise when its workers struck, Northwest does. "Look at their work on Asian markets," he says. "They're pretty shrewd in the way they use PR and paid advertising." In January, the airline took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging the Clinton administration to push Japan to deregulate its aviation market so that Northwest's Far East service could be competitive with Japanese airlines. That sort of ad campaign tends to influence public opinion with its impressive display of a company's lobbying clout. The spread also featured an illustration by Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Pat Oliphant--the kind of noncommercial graphic talent that lends advertising a principled air.

Closer to home, days after the telephone survey, Northwest ran full-page ads in local dailies announcing summer sale fares and double frequent-flyer miles. The ad trumpeting the WorldPerks miles is dominated by the image of a smiling ground worker holding a pair of wands that seem to be guiding a planeful of satisfied flyers into the sunlit clouds; beneath him beam a multiculti assortment of folks in Northwest uniforms. "The people of Northwest Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines want you to know how much we appreciate your business," reads the ad copy. "But a simple 'thank you' just didn't seem enough."

Jim Pounds, vice president and media director at Periscope Communications, a Minneapolis ad and media agency representing the Mall of America and Minnegasco, says that whatever the reason Northwest chose to depict such a happy workforce in such a prominent way, "it makes a bad situation worse." Worse, he says, and more puzzling, given the current labor climate at the airline. "Why they don't think that would send a weird message, I don't know," Pounds muses. "A few weeks ago there were those stories about the [Northwest] executives cashing in their stocks. Now they're threatening to fire [several mechanics] in Duluth. Everything they do just seems to raise the temperature of the water."

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