How stakeholders are better treated in times of trouble

As bankruptcies stack up in the US airline industry the stricken companies are taking the radical step of using their websites as bulletin boards to keep key stakeholder groups informed – though some are told more than others.

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When Delta and Northwest Airlines filed for Chapter 11 protection earlier this month, I went to their websites to see what I could find out. I was amazed – they are using them to keep customers, suppliers and investors informed. This is a great leap forward: it may be a blindingly obvious use for the web, but few companies have so far thought to use their sites as emergency noticeboards.
Both Northwest and Delta had links on their home pages to “restructuring updates”. So did United, which has been in Chapter 11 for three years. I looked at the three sites to see how they were treating three sets of ‘stakeholder’: customers, suppliers and investors.
I also looked at US Airways, which is in Chapter 11 but is merging with America West to drag itself out of its troubles. Less luck there – it prefers to concentrate on the happy prospects for its marriage.

Customers come first


Not surprisingly, given the core role of their websites as booking offices, the airlines focus most of their attention on customers. Northwest’s home page link leads to “An important message to customers” from the CEO, who says everything is just fine. Links lead to a longer letter saying much the same, and to an FAQ section which provides point-by-point reassurance; mostly importantly, that the WorldPerks programme will not be affected.
Delta’s restructuring section is headed by a short statement emphasising that “Your travel plans are secure” and “Your SkyMiles are secure” (phew). It has a series of useful FAQs, four of which are aimed at passengers and one at cargo customers. United provides letters to general customers as well as to Mileage Plus members, while a Customer Service FAQ underlines just how marvellous everything is.

Suppliers provided with answers


Suppliers get a good deal from the Delta website, if not from the airline itself. A comprehensive suppliers FAQ, clearly signposted within the restructuring area, includes pertinent questions such as “Why should I continue to provide good and services to you?” as well as valuable detail such as the fact that non-US suppliers should be paid even if American ones are not. There is a link to a special legal site which, the FAQ says, will have information about the claims process for suppliers. This site, www deltadocket.com, is currently rather forbidding – it will be interesting to see if the claims information is translated from legalese into language that suppliers can understand.
United also gives a link to a Supplier section within its restructuring area. This has a reasonably full letter, with a contact phone number, but no FAQs. That means it is likely to get more calls than Delta from, for example, non-US suppliers.
Curiously, I found information aimed at Northwest’s suppliers by going to the Investor section. While there is a Partners & Suppliers link in the About Northwest area, this leads only to a page where ‘technology vendors’ are allowed to give themselves a little plug. But there is a ‘For our suppliers’ section within a special mini-site, www.nwa-restructuring.com, which I found from the investor relations area. This is another letter, but a rather less upbeat one. “Unfortunately, US Bankruptcy law prohibits payments for goods and services received before today’s filing date,” it says. It also gives a phone number for accounts payable, for what that is worth.

Investors left with a poor share of information


If customers are well served and suppliers adequately so, investors get slim pickings. There is a link from United’s restructuring page to its investor section, but from there on the poor old investor gets a raw deal. This is unsurprising, as it is one of the worst investor relations areas I have ever encountered. The problem starts on the home page, if it can be called that. It is simply a list of links such as Overview, Calendar and Financial Reports. I clicked on Overview, which is a hymn of self praise without any mention of Chapter 11. I then found I could not move around within the section, so had to return to its home page; very odd.
After some false starts, I finally found something. The FAQs link turns out to be all about the restructuring: the first question is “What is a Plan of Reorganization?”. Trouble is, the FAQs are written as though they are supplementary to some other content, which does not appear to exist. More bafflement.
Delta is better. The investor section is not exactly state of the art, but a link leads to the restructuring section, which in turn leads to an FAQ page for investors. This does not have the same orphaned feeling as United’s. The first question is straightforward, if depressing: “What value with Delta’s common stock have in the future? Is it now worthless?”. (Answer: we don’t know.)
But Northwest… oh dear. The investor section (tucked away, like the others’, in the About Us area) has a promising link on its home page, pointing to “information or questions” about the restructuring. This leads to www.nwa-restructuring.com, with its information for customers and suppliers, but nothing at all for shareholders.
It is quite surprising, this. In the country that is supposed to worship most faithfully at the altar of shareholder value, investors are being in put in third place, after customers and suppliers. Good thing, too, you might say. But it’s still odd, isn’t it?
First published on ft.com 15.09.05

First published 21 September, 2005
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