In December 1999, Delta Air Lines, Air France, AeroMexico and Korean Air were finalizing details for a new global airline alliance called SkyTeam. The alliance would represent wider international airport hub access and growth potential, translating into greater convenience for international travelers. The alliance would also offer passengers exclusive, enhanced customer benefits such as single ticketing for passengers flying two or more SkyTeam airlines during a single journey; shared lounge and check-in facilities at alliance airports, and a reciprocal frequent flyer miles program.
But, as the fourth and smallest global airline alliance to launch in the last three years, SkyTeam faced both media and public skepticism. Fearing it would be seen as a “me too” alliance, or one that would not actually materialize like a previously announced airline alliance, SkyTeam turned to Ketchum to create a global press launch and communications plan that would: 1) establish SkyTeam as a formidable competitor in the minds of aviation industry agenda setters, 2) demonstrate message unity (despite working with four disparate cultures and business practices) and, 3) generate coverage in the international business and travel media outlets relied on by international business travelers.
Media Analysis of Competing Alliances: To gauge public and media reception of the airline alliance concept and of SkyTeam's competition, we examined recent media coverage of airline alliances from both a tone and content standpoint. Key findings from that research helped Ketchum define what would differentiate SkyTeam from its competitors. An analysis of media coverage also helped shape a launch event strategy, as well as a media strategy that included an international Web cast and a live satellite transmission to reach a global audience.
Message Benchmarking: Ketchum worked with the airlines to create two unified messages for the alliance that would resonate with international business travelers. The Ketchum Tracking System was employed to evaluate message delivery in the alliance’s hub countries (US, Mexico, France and Korea), with plans for a four-language media coverage analysis to be conducted after the event.
Crisis Preparedness: Ketchum identified potential issues that could derail or negatively impact the SkyTeam announcement. The team researched and prepared for scenarios (ranging from an air incident, to labor problems, to merger announcements) that could disrupt, delay or cancel the announcement.
Position SkyTeam alliance as a formidable competitor
Differentiate alliance offering to set SkyTeam apart from other global alliances
Create worldwide anticipation among international business travelers for new global airline alliance
Create a launch event to attract influential aviation agenda setters, as well as national and international business and travel media
Align four alliance partners to convey two consistent global messages: wider hub access (greater convenience) and exclusive amenities (enhanced customer benefits) for international business travelers
Industry agenda setters (airline analysts, financial analysts and top-tier business and travel press)
International business travelers (current and prospective)
Prospective SkyTeam alliance partners
Time: $472,500, OOP: $483,287, Total: $955,787
Global Alliance Partner Message Unity
Trained four partner CEOs to articulate the two differentiating messages – greater convenience and enhanced customer benefits.
Crafted a video to reflect four culturally distinct airlines uniting to provide unparalleled and seamless service.
Designed a single SkyTeam logo that would unite all four airlines under one distinguishable and easily recognizable symbol; logo was designed to convey a customer service orientation and hospitality.
Produced press kits in 10 different languages, yet one voice, to convey SkyTeam messages.
Provided journalists with instant translations of the CEOs’ presentations and Q&A sessions. At the press conference, foreign correspondents were handed headphones with assigned French, Korean and Spanish language stations, enabling the CEOs to communicate more comfortably in their respective native languages.
Used pre-event research to identify media that have covered recent airline alliance announcements, as well as those outlets most likely to reach the intended international business traveler target audience.
Developed a list of 850 journalists that represented international business, travel and trade outlets, as well as those that covered the four partner countries of origin and the destination cities they serve (19 countries in all).
Selected a luxurious mid-town Manhattan location – Cipriani 42nd Street – that was easily accessible to NYC media and to media arriving from out of town.
Themed venue to give attendees the sensation of flight – site was dramatically lit and dressed in sky-blue pipe and draping, while point-of-view airplane footage played on large screens around the room.
Invited pilots and flight attendants from each of the four airlines to participate in the launch event, demonstrating SkyTeam’s support for its employees.
Created a “First-Class” experience for attending journalists by handing them each a personalized “boarding pass” to the event. Reporters were greeted by name, escorted to their seat, given a warm towel to wash their hands and served a beverage.
Served an international lunch buffet with authentic cuisine from each of the airlines’ home countries to reflect and unify four distinct cultures.
4. Wide Global Reach (tactics defined by media analysis)
CEO Exclusives: Arranged exclusive one-on-one interviews for the four SkyTeam CEOs with influential global business media, including Le Monde, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times.
International Web Cast: Produced a live Web cast of the launch event to let targeted domestic and international airline reporters view the press conference live via the Internet. The Web cast also served as an employee communications tool. The Web cast URL was distributed in advance to employees at each of the four airlines so they could view the launch event live or log on to an archived site for 90 days.
Live Satellite Transmission: Broadcast the event live via satellite to a simultaneous press event held in Paris to engage European media that could not attend the event in New York. Journalists from France, Germany and the United Kingdom saw and heard the announcement in real time.
As the fourth international airline alliance to launch in three years, it was critical that SkyTeam be viewed by influential industry agenda setters as a formidable competitor; our solution was to host a spectacular, upscale event to attract industry and financial analysts and top-tier business and travel media to demonstrate SkyTeam’s commitment to the alliance and its passengers.
One partner’s airline safety record threatened to compromise favorable SkyTeam press coverage; Ketchum worked behind the scenes with aviation analysts and media to communicate the airline’s safety initiatives. The goal was to keep coverage of the airline’s safety record neutral rather than negative. Goal was accomplished.
Meeting international media deadlines is challenging; to maximize publicity opportunities, Ketchum worked across its global network to accommodate press deadlines in several time zones and arranged door-to-door transportation and accommodations for 93 international journalists to attend New York City launch event.
Event date changes sparked media speculation and the possibility of leaks; developed standby statements when necessary.
Despite differing cultures and business practices, the four partner airlines had to create a single, unified SkyTeam front; through weekly international conference calls and monthly meetings led by Ketchum, the partners were able to communicate joint messages while learning to accommodate each other’s diverse business practices.
Objective #1: Position SkyTeam alliance as a formidable competitor
Result: Airline and financial analysts have reported that SkyTeam is an important airline alliance with a strong future, in direct response to the alliance’s stature at launch. And, just months after the announcement, SkyTeam attracted CSA (Czech Airlines) as an additional alliance partner, with negotiations in progress with other airlines, paving the way for SkyTeam’s preeminence among alliances.
Objective #2: Convey differentiating alliance offering to set SkyTeam apart from competing global alliances
Result: A four-language message analysis of SkyTeam announcement publicity revealed that nearly three quarters of the coverage contained one or both of the program’s core messages: greater convenience and enhanced customer benefits.
Objective #3: Create worldwide anticipation among international business travelers for new global airline alliance
Result: Ketchum generated substantial positive coverage in the influential media relied on by international business travelers, including The Asian Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The New York Times, USA Today, Les Echos, Paris Match, Le Monde, El Financiero, CNN Moneyline.
170 journalists representing 118 media outlets from more than 15 countries attended the launch event (includes both US-based foreign correspondents and international media who flew in for the event)
32 journalists attended the event via Web cast and 180 via live satellite transmission
Ketchum generated 320 broadcast and print placements in 20 languages
“…the SkyTeam alliance should provide strong competition for trans-Atlantic travel, which is the biggest portion of revenue for international alliances.” Wall Street Journal Europe
“SkyTeam will offer more non-stop flights to Europe than any other airline alliance.” Dow Jones