OPINION: Mills on ... British Airways

"What have I got to do to make you love me? What do I do when lightning strikes? Sorry seems to be the hardest word."

With apologies to Sir Elt and Bernie Taupin, it doesn't seem that sorry is the hardest word these days. In fact, it's the easiest word to utter - just look at the No 10 spokesman Tom Kelly saying sorry for his Walter Mitty slur on the late Dr David Kelly. A quick apology on the 10 o'clock news and the media caravan moves on, leaving him, if not his conscience, in peace.

No, the truth is that while sorry may be an easy word to say, it's a difficult word to use with sincerity. You see, unless you really, really mean it, a "sorry" can often make things worse.

That's how I felt when I saw this BA ad in the Sunday papers earlier this month. "Big Sorry," the headline says. And what about the 17,000 passengers whose holidays or business trips were ruined by the BA strike?

"Big sorry" doesn't really cover it in my book. "Small, insincere, apology" would have been better. In fact, "Big sorry" sounds like something one of the Teletubbies would say when it trod on another one's foot.

Equally, however, it almost sounds ironic. It's what you say when you don't really feel you owe anyone an apology.

But then someone puts a pistol to your head and orders you to. So you cross your fingers behind your back and mutter "big sorry" through clenched teeth.

Bad move indeed. And as if that was not enough, however, BA then merrily added insult to injury by trying to link an apology to a cut-price offer and one that, moreover, could only be accessed on the internet and expired 48 hours later. (The prices weren't even that good, either, certainly when compared with BA's twin nemeses, Ryanair and easyJet.)

But anyway, how unbelievably insensitive was that? They have taken a PR disaster and tried to generate a commercial benefit from it. Let's not forget, this was not just some obscure, wildcat strike, but one that lasted several days in the full glare of the TV cameras.

So to take the misfortunes of 17,000 passengers as the peg from which to hang a tactical low-fare offer is a bit like when someone steals your watch and then tries to charge you £5 when you ask them the time. Again, how galling would it have been for one of those passengers affected by the strike to read that ad? They'd think: "Bastards. They screwed up my holiday and they're offering everyone else a cheap deal to get some brownie points back. What about me?"

So what could BA have done? First, pulling a major branding campaign - as reported by Marketing last month - was obviously the right thing to do. In the circumstances, talking about BA's in-flight service or commitment to looking after passengers - the sort of corporate wank that makes for a typical airline campaign and which BA, to be fair, tends to do extremely well - would have just compounded the problem. When you're in a hole, the best advice is to stop digging.

No-one would dispute that the art of the corporate apology is a tricky thing. Equally, however, done well - with grace, generosity and sincerity - it can have a powerful and redemptive effect. But only if the words match the actions. And seeing as BA's offer of restitution to those affected by the strike consists solely of an £80 flight voucher (valid only on BA, of course), the only conclusion to draw is that their actions are indeed as contemptuous as their words.

Dead cert for a Pencil? A sharp one in Rod Eddington's eye.

File under ... B for big mistake.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Even Branson wouldn't have had the

nerve to run an ad as crass as this."