Jun. 29, 2003: Delta’s Efforts at a New Image Don’t Fly With Me

Don’t look now, but somebody is getting ready to spray paint a cow patty. According to news reports, Delta Air Lines has hired a creative firm called BrightHouse to help improve its image. You remember Delta, don’t you? They are the folks who said they had to pay their executives $27 million in bonuses and offer them special pension protections so that the suits wouldn’t run off and work for somebody else. Personally, I thought Delta made a smart move. After all, with the economy booming like it is, what is to keep the senior vice president for nutritious airplane food from bolting the place for the chance to flip hamburgers at McDonald’s?

With the money safely stuffed in their mattresses, Delta executives have decided this would be a good time to turn warm and fuzzy on us, which is why they have brought in Brighthouse to work on their image. Joey Reiman, BrightHouse’s chairman is well known in the advertising business, but he says he isn’t going to just create ads for Delta. Evidently, ads are passé in today’s fast-paced world, except for car dealers who scream all the time and drug companies that interrupt the evening news to talk about body functions that can’t be mentioned in a family newspaper.

Instead, Reiman says the first thing he wants to do is to improve the relationship between the company and its 77,000 employees, which he says are Delta’s “best advertisement.” Good idea. Happy employees mean happy customers. There is just one teeny problem, however. The Delta employees I have heard from think the current management sucks. Admittedly, I haven’t heard from all 77,000, but I have a feeling that I have heard from enough to say they aren’t exactly the kind of ad that Delta wants to be running right now.

Reiman and his team said a lot of other stuff about “corporate messaging” and “discovering the vision” and “constructing a master idea” and the like. It all sounds good and is the kind of thing consultants are expected to say. But actions speak louder than words, and there are a bunch of people at Delta who have some pretty ugly words to say about their bosses’ actions right now.

While I am sure that the people who hired BrightHouse will be eager to get the bonus flap behind them and get busy discovering their vision – whatever that means – they should not assume that the folks down in the ranks will necessarily embrace the new party line. Unlike the well-paid people at the top of the business, the rank and file tend to tell it like it is – or like they perceive it to be. Delta’s executives have angered and embarrassed their workforce and employees have made their feelings widely known to their friends and neighbors. There isn’t enough advertising money available or enough creative gurus around to undo the damage that an employee can do to a company’s reputation and Delta’s has been hammered.

My humble suggestion to BrightHouse would be that they forget the vision stuff. All they need to do is tell the Delta executives to give back their undeserved, ill-gotten gains because the company is hemorrhaging money and to put their pensions at risk like everybody else. Tell them to apologize for their greed and lack of sensitivity to the rank-and-file employees. Tell them to admit they committed one of the all-time bonehead acts in the history of the world. Tell the VIPS to spend the next twelve months tagging bags, cleaning airplanes, hauling a few thousand tons of luggage on and off the planes and explaining to angry customers why their clothes are in Pittsburgh while they are in Denver. Tell them to do all of the things that their employees have to do daily while worrying about whether or not they are going to lose their jobs or their pensions. Do all of that, and the Delta despots might have an outside chance of regaining the respect of their 77,000 employees. Otherwise, BrightHouse, you are just gilding a cow patty.