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Bob Witeck: ‘American Airlines helped other brands to come out of the corporate closet’

Bob Witeck: ‘American Airlines helped other brands to come out of the corporate closet’

One evening in 1998, when the CEO of American Airlines telephoned, I could feel my temperature rising.

My anxiety didn’t stem from his title or the surprise nature of the call. Rather, it stemmed from an ongoing battle with conservative groups over the company’s right to serve LGBT customers.

But let me back up a few years.

In 1994, I began to consult closely with marketing colleagues at American Airlines to launch an innovative effort to help grow the company’s loyal and frequent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) customers.

With no fanfare and very modest budgets, American Airlines also established the nation’s first dedicated LGBT marketing team headed by Rick Cirillo. My charge was to help define the strategy and the message, and to counsel the team on building partnerships with leading gay causes and non-profits.

By emphasizing the personal touch and building a trusted bridge with community leaders and influential figures, we aimed to enhance American’s reputation and to expand the airline’s reach to legions of LGBT travel agents, frequent travelers, businesses and group travel organizers. American also became one of the first global airlines to join the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association.

It worked beyond our imagination. American Airlines was soon perceived as a forward-thinking pioneer by generating a diverse marketing strategy that embraced lesbians and gay men as valued customers and stakeholders. American helped point the way for other brands to come out of the corporate closet.

Not everyone agreed this was a good idea. On February 18, 1997, a coalition of nineteen conservative and religious-affiliated groups wrote to the airlines’ then CEO Bob Crandall to tell him they opposed his corporate policies towards gays and lesbians. Their six-page letter described homosexuality as an ‘unhealthy, destructive choice.’

Worse, they insisted that American Airline’s policies had gone ‘beyond mere tolerance’ and was ‘promoting homosexuality.’ Several months later, the letter was mirrored in full-page ads in newspapers across the country.

Given the unprecedented noise, Crandall was persuaded that meeting with these organizations, at a minimum, would be prudent. Crandall and his executives felt that talking with the groups’ leaders would reveal first-hand what, if any, economic threat they presented. More importantly, the meeting could help convince the critics that American Airlines was not picking sides in any ‘culture war.’

By most accounts, the off-the-record meeting cleared the air and the guests departed without public notice. What happened next, however, both shocked and surprised many, including the media.

In a press release published the day after the meeting, the Concerned Women for America, a conservative political organization, suggested that Crandall had sided with them. Their headline? ‘American Airlines Pledges to Stop Promoting Homosexuality.’

‘No longer will air travelers on American Airlines fear that a portion of their fares is funding activities that may be in direct conflict with their religious beliefs,’ the news release stated. ‘We are so pleased that American has decided to stop endorsing this deadly behavior.’

American Airlines was dumbfounded. Crandall regretted the appearance of being set up. Worse, the company objected to the disturbing public declaration that American Airlines had surrendered and reversed course due to pressure. From American’s standpoint, no such decision was made.

Unwittingly, the activists hit a corporate nerve. Going into the meeting, American Airlines leaders maintained their business-like tone of ‘neutrality’ in listening and responding to sensitive social issues. The company’s executives insisted that they would remain free to decide their own business practices and would not subject themselves to misperceptions and pressures.

That’s the moment that my phone rang at home. My anxiety soon flipped to admiration. I learned that Crandall, as well as one of his senior public affairs executives, insisted that American Airlines must have the last word on the matter – and asked my help in drafting a brief statement to refute the earlier news release.

By morning, Crandall approved the message that American Airlines had made no such commitment to the groups. He declared that American Airlines would remain independent to focus on its own business objectives, and to welcome everyone as they always have.

Fortunately, American Airlines never looked back. And neither have I.

Witeck Communications is based in Washington, D.C. You can follow Bob on Twitter @Bob_Witeck