British Airways vs The Financial Times

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British Airways Boeing 747 G-BNLY "City Of Swansea", Dublin (Image Credit: British Airways)
British Airways Boeing 747 G-BNLY “City Of Swansea”, Dublin (Image Credit: British Airways)

Journalism and PR is a murky business.

Journalists depend on PRs for access to stories which, if denied, benefit rival publications. PRs also require the support of journalists for press coverage.

Much of what is written by journalists can be briefed “in background” by PRs. This even applies to stories that are officially denied with the statement “we do not comment on speculation”, but have been briefed off the record for one reason or another. Lines have also become blurred as many journalists, not always by choice, have moved into the world of PR.

There are rules of the game. Press embargoes must be respected. And a PR offered to comment on a journalist’s exclusive story must not try to take the sting out of it by leaking to a rival.

If rules are broken, it’s taken very personally and not forgotten. Scores will be settled.

That might be one reason why BA has withdrawn the Financial Times from its aircraft and lounges around the world. It has run a number of negative stories of late, such as questions over security at its call centre in Bremen. That said, it is hardly the only newspaper to have done so.

The FT has not taken to this quietly. It has taken out adverts on social media and its own paper encouraging readers to buy copies at airports, fly on other airlines, or take out a subscription.

Financial Times Tweet, April 2019
Financial Times Tweet, April 2019

Years ago, if a company was unhappy about its press coverage, rather than indulge in passive aggressive behaviour, its Chairman would simply call the editor or journalist in question and scream at them down the telephone.

As case in point is Lord King, former Chairman of BA. Lord King was notorious for having little patience with journalists. Once under questioning at a news conference, Lord King shouted across the room to a press officer “Hey! I pay you to talk to idiots like these.”

In the early 1990s, the Financial Times ran a series known as “My Office” in which Chairman and CEOs would give FT columnist Lucy Kellaway a tour of their private offices. Many regretted doing so.

Lord King guided Lucy Kellaway through his private picture collection in his office: “That’s me with the Pope…That’s me in the Oval Office with Bush, and me with Billy Graham. That’s me on holiday with Reagan.” 

Lucy Kellaway would, some years later, write: “Lord King was trying to tell me that he was important; but what he actually told me was that he was a shocking snob, name dropper and general pain in the backside.”

Lord King was reportedly so incensed at this portrayal of his pomposity he called the editor of the FT and threatened to withdraw all BA advertising from the paper.

Back to BA and newspapers today, in the past many papers would willingly provide free or deeply discounted copies to airlines and hotels to bulk up their circulation figures. These “bulks” are now separated from paid-for circulation figures and many newspapers have weaned themselves of the habit. However, according to the most recent figures, the FT still gives away 30,650 copies a month. Unless the FT is changing its policy on bulks, the reason for its removal is unlikely to be on cost grounds. Whatever the reason for the spat, the two will likely have to kiss and make up at some point.

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