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"We categorically deny the charges and intend to fight them vigorously in a court of law."

How many $500-an-hour lawyers have said that to how many rolling cameras in boilerplate defense of how many thieving, corner-cutting, stock-rigging, price-fixing scumbags? The attorney looks dyspeptic, the creepy indictee smiles wanly and everybody watching it on TV thinks the same thing: guilty as sin.

In America, of course, we are all innocent until either proven guilty or featured on "Dateline NBC," but Americans have long since figured out that even the most unspeakable act is always, always followed by an angry, resentful and/or incredulous denial.

Denials, therefore, in terms of public relations value, are essentially worthless. Worse than worthless, actually, because they so screamingly suggest culpability.

This all gets to the remarkable, and ill-advised, USAir advertising campaign run this past week in major U.S. newspapers. The airline is by no means under suspicion of corporate crime, but-in the wake of several fatal air crashes and a disturbing New York Times investigation into its safety record-the carrier is nonetheless under scrutiny. Indeed, losing $180 million in the third quarter alone, USAir itself is on the verge, financially, of crashing.

Thus did it publish six full-page "Dear Travelers" letters, two from Chairman Seth E. Schofield, one from representatives of the mechanics union, one from the ramp agents, one from the flight attendants and one from the pilots.

Placed by McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, the ads all assure that USAir has redoubled its efforts to provide safe air travel. The flight attendants "are committed totally to flight safety." The mechanics see it as their "highest priority." It is the "No. 1 responsibility" for the ramp agents, the pilots' "first priority" and, according to Schofield, "the foundation of all that we do."

Except, as the media insist on reporting, the planes keep crashing, others take off without enough fuel to arrive at their destinations and USAir has repeatedly (by some measures disproportionately) run afoul of Federal Aviation Administration procedures.

In such an environment-with the relationship between cash flow problems and safety hanging uneasily in the air-USAir decided it had to deal with inflamed public opinion. It missed one such opportunity in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy by not voluntarily grounding its fleet of Boeing 737s. Hence it could not enjoy the Extra Strength Tylenol Effect-i.e., winning consumer sympathy by erring, at whatever cost, on the side of maximum caution.

That job is now left to advertising. But the advertising is not equal to the task.

None of these ads dispute the alarming particulars, but as a group they constitute a denial-namely that any of the incidents bespeak a corporate laxness about safety. And that denial may well be true.

But to the well-conditioned public, it will seem only that the airline doth protest too much. Indeed, like the newspaper correction that calls attention to a negative story the reader missed the first time around, these ads will only increase-vastly increase-the number of people giving thought to the issue of USAir's safety.

And the presumption, as many a $500-an-hour lawyer can attest, is of the very worst.

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