The Campaign to “Keep Delta My Delta”
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The Campaign to “Keep Delta My Delta”

Delta Air Lines was emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was poised to file its Plan of Reorganization with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court when US Airways announced its hostile bid to takeover Delta on November 15, 2006.

Paul Holmes

Delta Air Lines was emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was poised to file its Plan of Reorganization with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court when US Airways announced its hostile bid to takeover Delta on November 15, 2006.  Delta hired Ketchum to oversee a nationwide communications campaign to convince Washington policymakers – and ultimately Delta’s creditors – that a US Airways-Delta merger was anti-competitive and wouldn’t “fly.”  In less than two months, Ketchum executed a national campaign dubbed “Keep Delta My Delta,” which attracted more than 100,000 online supporters and mobilized a coalition of hundreds of federal, state and local elected officials and community and business leaders who publicly rejected US Airways’ bid. On January 31, 2007, US Airways dropped its hostile bid after learning that Delta’s creditors supported Delta’s Plan of Reorganization.

 

CHALLENGE

Since Delta Air Lines filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2005, the company and its employees had made tremendous progress in turning the airline around and transforming it into a strong, profitable carrier. The company was on course to file its Plan of Reorganization with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court when the unexpected and unwelcome bid came from US Airways.  With the US Airways bid on the table, Delta had to persuade its creditors to reject US Airways’ proposal and support Delta’s efforts to emerge from bankruptcy alone. At the time, US Airways’ claim, echoed by media and financial analysts, was that the merger held significant financial benefits and was a necessary step toward airline consolidation. Delta hired Ketchum Public Affairs to direct and coordinate a nationwide, multi-faceted communications campaign to shift focus of the debate to why the bid was anti-consumer, anti-competitive and incapable of passing regulatory scrutiny.

 

RESEARCH/PLANNING

Before Delta could voice its opposition publicly, the company’s board had to approve its decision, which meant Delta remained relatively silent for weeks while US Airways controlled the initial debate. With only days to conduct research and get a campaign off the ground, the team conducted the following research:

?           Impact of Merger – The biggest concern Washington policymakers raise about mergers is whether or not they violate anti-trust laws.  Delta commissioned detailed, state-specific analyses of the negative impact US Airways’ proposal would have on customers and communities across the country.  The results supported Delta’s position that the merger would be anti-competitive (increasing fares, reducing choices and limiting service) and would not likely be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice, thereby giving the team a strong, fact-based argument around which to build the campaign. The results also revealed which states and congressional districts on which to focus outreach efforts. Additionally, the team compared US Airways and Delta’s domestic networks and noticed significant overlap; the maps became a critical visual at Capitol Hill hearings and during office visits.

?           Qualitative Analyses – Delta’s qualitative analyses of several key audiences – particularly Delta’s employees, retirees, pilots union and frequent flyers – revealed that they overwhelmingly supported Delta’s efforts to remain independent.  In fact, Delta’s employees and pilots union had already begun to organize their own opposition to US Airways and were willing to coordinate their efforts for maximum impact. 

 

OBJECTIVES

?         Stop US Airways’ hostile takeover bid.

o          Convince policymakers that US Airways’ proposal was structurally flawed, with significant negative consequences for Delta employees and retirees, frequent flyers, consumers and communities nationwide.

o          Create substantial doubt in the eyes of Delta’s creditors about the feasibility of a US Airways-Delta merger and likelihood of it gaining regulatory approval. 

 

STRATEGIC APPROACH

Target Audiences – While Delta's creditors committee was the ultimate decision-maker, it was not the direct campaign target. Ketchum instead identified influential people who would change the discussion from a business page story about mergers and acquisitions to a front page story about the survival of an airline.

?         Delta Employees, Retirees and Frequent Flyers – This group was eager to help and as constituents of federal elected officials in key committees, could voice their opposition through e-petition signatures and letters.

?         State and Local Elected Officials and Community Leaders – The officials and leaders in states that would be most impacted by the merger had a stake in keeping Delta independent and were key to the team’s efforts to broaden and deepen local support and generate local media.

?         Washington Policymakers (with particular focus on the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Transportation) – This audience is influenced by its constituents; the louder the grassroots and grasstops voices, the more likely they would be to publicly oppose the US Airways bid. 

Strategies

?         Shift the “airline merger” debate to Delta’s terms, focusing on the harmful effects on employees, communities and the flying public rather than on the financial and consolidation benefits.

?         Focus communications and lobbying efforts on key members of the U.S. House and Senate and Justice and Transportation Department officials who have the ability to influence the outcome of the US Airways bid.

?         Mobilize an army of supporters to oppose the merger publicly and create a “surround sound” environment in Washington to ensure that policymakers see, read and hear Delta’s side of the story.

 

CAMPAIGN EXECUTION

 

Campaign Launch – The Ketchum team developed a campaign based on the Delta employee-created tagline, “Keep Delta My Delta,” and launched it nationwide on December 19, 2006 – the same day Delta filed its Plan of Reorganization with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and officially rejected US Airways’ unsolicited merger proposal.

?         Campaign Web Site – Created an interactive Web site, www.KeepDeltaMyDelta.org, which became the centerpiece and virtual home of the campaign. Site visitors learned about the proposed deal and its potential impact on their communities, and registered to receive e-mail updates. The Web site went live on December 13, 2006, the same day Delta’s pilots union and other employees staged a 5,000-person rally at the Georgia International Convention Center in opposition of the US Airways bid.

?         E-petition – Developed an “e-petition” that supporters could sign to “Say NO to US Airways.” This grassroots tool was used in media outreach and on Capitol Hill to demonstrate overwhelming opposition to the merger.

?           “Delta Day” Rallies – Staged pro-Delta rallies in Atlanta and at eight other airports that stood to lose flights if a merger went through.  Rallies featured Delta employees and retirees, local business and community leaders, and elected officials, who passionately spoke about why the bid would hurt them, their jobs and their cities.  The grand finale and photo opportunity at each event was attendees signing a poster-sized version of the "e-petition." Video footage of these rallies even made its way onto YouTube.com.

?           Print Advertising – Placed ads on December 20 in major daily print publications in these communities thanking them for their support and reiterating the e-petition “call-to-action.”

The campaign launch earned more than 13,756,000 media impressions on December 19 and 20, while US Airways remained virtually silent.

 

Continuing the Pressure – The team geared up for anticipated hearings in Washington, D.C. in mid-January:

?           Local Supporters – Continued to recruit local legislators and community leaders in target states who joined the campaign, participated in seven additional “Delta Day” events, passed resolutions and proclamations, published opinion pieces in local print publications, and authored rapid-response letters-to-the-editor.

?           National Supporters – Recruited the Business Travel Coalition and Southeast Tourism Society, two national consumer and business travel organizations, which publicly supported the campaign through testimony at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on January 24, 2007. 

?           Print Advertising – Placed “Say NO to US Airways” advocacy ads in Washington, D.C. print publications. 

?           Capitol Hill Outreach – Issued a “call-to-action” via the Web site to generate letters to Congress and the Departments of Justice and Transportation. 

?           Employee Participation on Capitol Hill – Organized an employee “fly-in” and rally on Capitol Hill the day before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing, which featured 150 Delta pilots, other employees and retirees, and U.S. senators from Georgia and Kentucky.  The employees then visited 68 Senate offices (chosen based on their committee assignments and potential state impacts), dropping off campaign kits with customized information on how a US Airways-Delta merger would negatively affect each particular state.

 

RESULTS

In just 55 days, the campaign created a groundswell of opposition to US Airways’ bid and support for Delta’s plan by: 

?         Attracting more than 100,000 supporters via www.KeepDeltaMyDelta.org;

?         Generating more than 150,000 letters sent to Washington policymakers;

?         Earning more than 220,000,000 media impressions; and

?         Creating a coalition of hundreds of national, state and local consumer groups, elected officials and community leaders – all of whom issued proclamations and public statements opposing the deal.

As a result of this outpouring of pressure, on January 31, 2007, Delta’s creditors announced their support for Delta’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy alone. Hours later, US Airways dropped its bid to merge with Delta.

 

As The Washington Post noted in its coverage of the failed merger attempt: “Analysts said that resistance in Congress, potential trouble in obtaining anti-trust approval and difficulties in combining antagonistic workforces probably led creditors to side with Delta’s management.  ‘The US Airways proposal had more money, but there were a lot of problems, too,’ said Darryl Jenkins, an analyst and consultant.  ‘Creditors saw Delta’s plan as having less risk.  Delta’s management created enough doubt to be able to emerge free, for now.’”

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