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Issues Advertising as Crisis Communication: Northwest Airlines' Use of Image Restoration Strategies during the 1998 Pilot's Strike

Article excerpt

This study explores the use of issues advertising as a form of organizational crisis communication. Specifically, the study analyzes Northwest Airline's (NWA) use of image restoration strategies in the issues advertisements it placed related to the 1998 pilots' strike. We conclude that issues advertising enabled NWA to be proactive in their attempt to reduce culpability for the strike. The evidence also suggests that NWA was able to retain passenger volume but failed to maintain investor confidence. NWA's persuasiveness was limited by the decision to offer only pseudo-corrective action, an inappropriate attempt at separation from its pilots and a failure to account for the relationship history with employees. The study concludes that issues advertising campaigns can incorporate image restoration strategies, serve as part of an organization's crisis management plan, and provide essential information to internal and external stakeholders.

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Late in the summer of 1998, Northwest Airlines (NWA) initiated one of its most extensive advertising campaigns. This campaign, however, was not designed to lure customers to the airline's seats. Rather, NWA used newspaper, radio, and television advertising to publicly defend its position prior to and during its 15-day pilots' strike. Daring the strike an estimated 2 million passengers were displaced and 31,000 NWA employees were temporarily laid off. Heath (1997) contends that issues campaigns, such as the one mounted by NWA, provide "opportunities for creating, altering, and using zones of meaning that can bring entities together in harmony rather than leave them pitted against one another" (p. 193). Heath further explains that zones of meaning are the "shared information and opinion that members of organizations and publics understand and hold dear" (p. 192). In the case of NWA's pilots' strike, the zones of fairness and corporate stability collided. The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), representing NWA's pilots, argued that NWA's leadership was seeing record profits without adequately compensating employees for the concessions they made five years earlier when the company was struggling. Conversely, NWA claimed that the pilots were well compensated and that the company could not compete in the air transportation industry if it was forced to comply with the wage increases ALPA demanded. Thus, both sides in the strike sought to gain public support and legitimacy for their competing positions.

The danger of such a dispute is that it pits an internal stakeholder group against the organization's leadership. The risk for an organization in a strike situation is that its reputation might be damaged by claims from an internal stakeholder that are inconsistent with the organization's corporate story (van Riel, 1997). Brinson and Benoit (1999) describe this circumstance as separation. They explain that shifting blame to an internal stakeholder is difficult "because the target of blame is part of the entity that is claiming innocence" (p. 505). When the organization is responsible for providing consumers with products or services, such infighting can delegitimize both parties in the eyes of the public (Sethi, 1977). In this crisis situation both NWA's social legitimacy and its financial stability were threatened by the strike. Thus, NWA was motivated to seek a swift resolution to the crisis without compromising its financial stability. To do so, NWA publicly lobbied through an extensive issues advertising campaign for public support in actuating the crisis resolution it preferred. The purpose of the present study is to examine the case in an effort to determine the effectiveness of using issues advertisement in a crisis situation. We begin with a review of the literature associated with issues advertising, reputation management, and image restoration. The review is then followed by an analysis of the NWA advertisements. …