The dispute between Northwest Airlines and its pilots, now entering its second week, is eerily reminiscent in tone of the strike that ended the life of Eastern Airlines. With both sides seemingly bent on conducting their negotiations through the media—both the airline and the union are spending heavily on ads—it seems more energy is being devoted to mutual recrimination than to resolution.
Public relations experts are critical of Northwest on two fronts. First, the company’s ads appear to be designed to score political points rather than to communicate any information of value to its various stakeholders. And second, some of those ads have crossed the fine line between attacking the union and attacking the pilots themselves.
The cities most affected by the Northwest Airlines strike—both in terms of travel and in terms of the 27,000 layoffs the company announced in midweek—are Detroit and Minneapolis, so PR executives in both cities are watching the strike closely. Most say the aggressive PR efforts are hindering negotiations without helping either side with the public.
According to Glenn Karowski, managing director of Minneapolis-based Karwoski & Courage, “When you get into these kind of situation, if someone throws a punch, you punch back. It’s hard to stop.”         
Dave Beal, a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, quoted University of Minnesota labor relations specialist Mario Bognanno: “The backstage negotiators won’t be able to get their job done until their bosses stop making so much noise fron the front stage orchestra pit.” Bognanno said he was “dumbfounded” by the continuing a       d campaign.
An Air Lines Pilots Association (ALPA) spokesman said the union had asked for a moratorium on ads when negotiations resumed in mid-August, but the company had refused.
One NWA ad claims that labor leaders “continued to turn a deaf ear to every reasonable proposal.” Another—one that many felt crossed the line between criticism of the union and criticism of the pilots themselves, offered a “Northwest Airlines Pilots’ Quiz,” with questions and answers designed to make the pilots’ position appear unreasonable.
The union, meanwhile, is focusing on the issue of “fairness.” In particular, it is contrasting its members’ willingness to give up 15 percent of their salaries in 1993 to bail the airline out with the $19 million CEO John Dasburg earned when he cashed in his stock options recently. The basic issue, as far as the union is concerned, is that it believes management reneged on promises made when the pilots took a pay cut, and is keeping the company’s recent profits for itself.
“There are no winners so far,” says crisis management expert Jeff Caponigro, president of Detroit’s Caponigro Communications. “ The customer seems to be the forgotten party.  Both the union and NWA are so concerned with drawing their line in the sand, and posturing and sparring with the other side, that they’ve seemingly lost the focus on the customer. Customers are left with a lot of questions and very few answers.”
The ads conspicuously failed to address the concerns of consumers, specifically, what kind of alternative travel plans they might make and what each side is doing to settle the strike.
“I feel Northwest has really missed a golden opportunity to strengthen communications with its customers,” says Sandra Hermanoff, president of Hermanoff & Associates.  Calls to the company’s 800 number are answered by a recording, and the company offers assistance with emergencies or special situaltions. “Their ads and letters say nothing. No one will ever be able to calculate the dollar loss from customer loyalty, but I’ll bet it’s more than all the bucks lost during the strike.”
If the ads aren’t designed to reach consumers, who are they targeting?
“You could make the case that the airline is reaching out to investors, because some of the ads appeared in the New York Times, and New York is not a major market for Northwest,” says one Twin Cities PR exec. “You could also make the case that the two sides are talking to each other through the press. The airline’s ads seem to be designed to make sure the pilots understand how tough it is prepared to be.”
Whatever trust may have existed between the airlines and its employees (most others, including flight attendants and machinists, are sympathetic to ALPA’s position) has clearly vanished in recent months, and every ad makes it less and less likely that management will be able to rebuild that trust. For a strategy seemingly designed to erode the relationship between the company and its key employees, Northwest Airlines deserves a D so far.