Dick Yarbrough: Delta execs can’t seem to navigate turbulence of external environment

Published 9:51 am Wednesday, March 14, 2018

For a number of years, I supervised a staff in Washington — first with BellSouth Corporation and then with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games — and following that had an office in New York as member of the board of a large public relations firm.
That meant almost weekly trips on Delta Air Lines, many times going up on the early morning red-eye flight and back late the same evening. I used to joke that if I missed a week, Delta would call to see if I was OK.
Thank goodness, Delta has always been better at flying airplanes than they are at navigating through the turbulence of the external environment. That is because the pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, ticket counter personnel and other hard-working Delta people are better at their jobs than the clueless top brass seems to be at theirs. And don’t even bring up what must pass as a Communications Department there. My experience tells me they either give lousy advice or they are ignored.
I say this only to make a point, but on my wall sits a plaque certifying I was recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Public Relations Practitioners of the 20th Century.” OK, so it was a slow century for public relations practitioners, but that is not the point I was trying to make.
I got that recognition not because of creating pretty annual reports or employee magazines or innovative press releases, but because I was able to convince my company’s management that external counsel needs to be given the same weight in decision-making as legal counsel. Good legal advice is not always good external advice. Even the most enlightened executives don’t like to hear that. They want to view their decisions from the inside out where they all make sense and not outside in where many times they don’t.
Which brings me to the Delta Air Lines decision to cancel the discount for members of the National Rifle Association, following the Parkland shooting. I am not getting into a Second Amendment debate here. I am just saying that Delta’s timing could not have been worse and someone inside the business with the sense of a tree frog should have alerted senior management of that fact.
Their announcement of dropping the NRA discount (used by only 13 people, by the way) when they did resulted in the cancellation of a $50 million jet fuel tax break for the airline for the second time in three years. Did anyone think to tell Delta executives that it is an election year and pandering politicians would be falling all over themselves to rail in righteous indignation? Did anyone suggest the poohbahs wait a few weeks until the session concluded, let Gov. Deal sign the tax relief bill and then announce their decision? You would catch the same hell but you have more time to figure how to better explain your position and keep the tax break, as well.
To quote that great philosopher Yogi Berra, this clumsy episode is deja vu all over again. Three years ago, Delta’s then-chairman, Richard Anderson, took it upon himself as president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to tell state lawmakers not to be “chicken” in raising gasoline taxes to fund transportation improvements in the state. That remark laid an egg. Irate legislators killed the $50 million fuel tax exemption that had been legislated in 2006, when Delta was facing bankruptcy.
And back in 2003, when the airline was in financial straits, laying off workers, cutting pension benefits for others and seeking major concessions from Delta pilots, Delta execs gave themselves $43 million worth of bonuses and bankruptcy-proof pensions to “keep their executive team together.” Delta’s CEO at the time, Leo Mullin, left shortly thereafter with a cool $16 million in his pocket. Shameful.
Should corporations have the same right of free speech as the rest of us? Absolutely. But they need to understand the ramifications of when they do exercise it. And somebody needs to have the courage to tell the suits how to and when not to. Too many public relations people don’t have that courage. It is no fun telling your boss “no.” I have the scars to prove it.
When both the governor and the Speaker of the House remark on the airline’s poor timing of their NRA announcement, I need say no more. Delta is a great airline thanks to its people but the top brass does them no favors with their political ineptitude.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at dick@dickyarbrough.com; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.