Controversial posts are all the rage, so here are the reasons why I think Alan Joyce’s (the Qantas CEO, not the mistaken American student on Twitter) move around grounding the airline was a great idea, at least from a branding perspective.

Like it or not, the Qantas brand isn’t what it used to be. Think about the kangaroo a few weeks ago. What adjectives would you have used to describe it? Superb? Exclusive? Premium? I doubt it. I suspect words like ‘average’, ‘tired’ and maybe ‘old’ would have come more to the forefront. Commentators suggest Qantas is ‘iconic’ and ‘revered around the world’ but I’d suggest that’s some Australian wishful thinking – much like our belief that American’s love Australian comedy. Name me a world-famous Australian comedian? Exactly.

Outplayed by competitors in the last few years, the recent rebranding of Virgin Australia started hammering the final nails in the coffin. Sure, Qantas had 65% of the domestic market share, but the international space was being chewed up by Virgin, Emirates etc. I’d go as far as to say that internationally, the brand was in freefall. They were making massive losses and not competing on any front. If you don’t believe that, consider the fact that Qantas shares used to trade above $5; they now trade below $2.

Now Joyce was also facing the prospect of that brand being dragged even lower by continued action from three core unions, who were causing delays, cancellations and issues for passengers across the country. In fact, the union strike action had cancelled more flights over the previous months than the Qantas weekend of action had. Were they all complaining about the same thing? Was it pay? No. Outside of the ill-informed commentators ranting about his Friday afternoon payrise – a rise that was approved by 97% of the shareholders – it’s never been about pay.

It was about the de-Australianisation of the brand and long-term job prospects. The unions wanted everyone to know that if an offshore worker was fixing a toilet in First Class, that made that toilet a little less Australian. The vision of prospective growth into Asia, where the tourist spend is, would eventually deliver more Australian jobs was too far-reaching for union boss Tony Sheldon to see. The kangaroo was down and it was getting a kicking.

So Joyce knew he had to do something. Drastic action when a brand is at its peak performance is idiocy. Drastic action when a brand has been beaten black and blue can only make sense. What did he have to lose? The respect of the public? A few customers? 90% of the public will be back on board if there’s a cheap flight going – we’re that fickle. (That’s what Webjet is for: to satisfy our fickleness.) Murdoch made a similar, albeit even more drastic move, with the News Of The World. We’ve all got horror stories of dealing with Telstra – longer term issues that have made us much more angry than missing a flight  – but we still go back, over and over again. Like it or not, for most of us, travel between Australian cities is a commodity. Convenience and price come way in front of the logo on the tail fin.

It’s always been a matter of perspective. The Unions don’t want an Australian brand operating in foreign markets being maintained by anyone but Australian workers. But what if Joyce had announced last week that Qantas was buying a foreign airline in South East Asia and bringing it into part of the Qantas family? The work would still have been carried out offshore and everyone would have patted him on the back for creating greater opportunity for future growth.

Any domestic customer who claims they’re loyal to a particular airline brand is either one of very few, or lying. Rarely do you find Australians with any real connection to Qantas as an ‘Australian’ brand. In fact, few Australians have any connection to any Australian brands, but that’s for another blog. There is some symbolic flag-waving about keeping an Australian brand in Australian hands, but we all know that in this day and age of globalisation Qantas needs to compete. And to do that, it’s going to need to take some services offshore. To make its international service profitable, it needs to compete in an international space.

And talking of the international, there has also been a lot of xenophobia regarding this whole episode on two fronts: an Irishman running Qantas and question marks around the quality of work carried out offshore. Apparently it’s OK for people to Twitter things like this:

But did you know that according to Wikipedia, Joyce is gay too? Would it have been okay to complain about the ‘queer throwing a hissy fit’? Of course not. But it seems acceptable to bash him because he’s Irish. Few people look into his background – Joyce pretty much did every job going at Aer Lingus on his rise to the top; if anyone knows about running an airline, it’s him. He’s probably one of the most qualified people in the world. We want world class leaders running our country: the reality is that some of those world class leaders won’t be Australian by birth.

And the position now is:

  • the union hold hopefully broken
  • the option to develop those overseas market, and
  • rebuild the Qantas brand without the unions striking.

An Australian brand, staffed by Australian and international staff, maintained across borders and with a thriving business in South East Asia. That would make me proud.

Only time will tell if the gamble has paid off. Joyce has taken a large amount of the flak himself which is what real leadership is about, so it may be easier for the Qantas brand to recover. Either way, its worth repeating that a successful international Qantas will eventually deliver more Australian jobs in the long-term in both the aviation industry, but also in a lot of industries too. It’s also worth remembering that Mother Nature has grounded a lot more Qantas flights than Joyce ever has and we always forgive her.

And on the social media side:

A ‘social media strategist’ was quoted as saying that Qantas had dealt with this very badly in the social media space, just tweeting and responding to everything with broadcast tweets, rather than addressing specific issues. That, to me, is the mark of a social media strategist unable to understand the PR side of the situation. How was Qantas going to reply to the tens of thousands of tweets? How do they prioritise one over the other? Where’s the manpower to reply to them all?

They did what they had to do in moments like that: kept quiet. It was already a PR disaster. The Qantas board knew what it was going to mean when he made the decision. Having someone try and reply to tweets wasn’t going to fix anything. Best to just shut up, sit quietly and ride it out. Anything they said was going to make it worse.

*The image used for this story is the property of wheredidgogogo

Simon Dell
BY Simon Dell ON 2 November 2011
Simon is a former full-service agency managing director that ran for seven years and delivered for clients across Australia. He now runs his own digital consultancy SimonDell.com working with Australian businesses helping with online communication and creative strategies. Find Simon on Twitter at @IAmSimonDell, on LinkedIn at IAmSimonDell and Facebook at SwitchYourBusiness.
  • Hi Simon,

    As a semi-regular flyer, my perception of the “damage” to Qantas is seen in terms of “reliability”. One of the main problems for Tiger for example was that it constantly (in the eyes of the traveling public) cancelled flights. The low cost was seen in terms of not actually arriving in the chosen destination.

    The lockout of staff and grounding of the Qantas fleet by Alan Joyce means the “reliability” question for travellers is writ large.

    A corollary to this is that during the actual grounding of the fleet, passengers and their families wanted information. The broadcast nature of the Qantas social media accounts (especially Twitter) meant 2 things.

    1. The thousands of passengers and their families looking for information about their flights got no information (= Qantas is unreliable); and

    2. The social media space was taken up by others, especially the unions, dissatisfied Qantas staff, angry passengers, frustrated families, annoyed taxi drivers and so on.

    While the Qantas PR machine was in over-drive getting their key messages out to traditional media (especially television and newspaper journalists), they left the social media space almost entirely alone.

    What could they have done? Overall, take a leaf from the book of the various banks who recently had their IT systems break down (resulting in no money transfers, broken ATMs, etc).

    o Replied to passengers with details of who they could contact for more information – the Qantas customer service phone line or an email address

    o Tweeted (or re-tweeted or live-tweeted) the various interviews and other lines that CEO Alan Joyce was giving to the traditional media (or at least linked to stories).

    o Given updates more than once every hour or two – especially for passengers “who come in late” to the grounding story.

    o Put out their line on why the fleet was grounded (in the Fair Work Commission, they said under oath that it was over “safety concerns” due to stressed pilots.

    Obviously, Qantas hasn’t invested in the social media infrastructure that some banks and other large corporations have. However, given that the grounding was premediated and known well in advance by senior Qantas executives, you’d have thought that one of them would have pumped more resources into the PR/Comms dept before the grounding took effect.

  • Simon
    I agree with your comments about how Qantas handled this via social media. What many ‘experts’ forgot was that this was a highly sensitive issue and the best option was to focus on delivering service as best they could with every man and his roo staying on message – something we saw quite clearly from Joyce and co.

    If anything (from the data I tracked on the weekend) this incident proved again that for all it’s glory, social media has some serious scalability issues as a communication channel. I’m not taking sides, but QF did a reasonable job all things considered.

    To Alex’s comments that QF may not have invested in SM infrastructure like the banks – this is wrong (I had a huge WTF moment with that comment).

    If you compare QF’s response to QF32 vs this years ash cloud incident – chalk and cheese. Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do via social channels – cue Monty Python quote “(social media) is not the messiah…”

    My key observation from the weekend is that none of the key stakeholders (i.e. Qantas, Govt, or Unions) did anything to create engagement with the community – no blog posts, no simple statement of facts, just mainstream media soundbites. Again, that may be harsh given the sensitivity of the situation – but I would have thought it was an option…

    • I agree that this is/was a sensitive issue. However, as far using social media for customer service, if Qantas had a good response to the ash-cloud incident, which was all about disruption to travelers and reliability of services, then they’ve shown they can use social media during a crisis.

      As far maintaining open communication and engagement with disrupted passengers and customers, Qantas let everyone down. My comment regarding “not investing in SM infrastructure” was based in response to Simon’s paragraph in the original article. While this disruption was industrial, rather than a natural disaster, Qantas still should have kept faith with their customers.

      • Alex
        I think we’re saying the same thing…you talk about keeping faith – I refer to engaging with their customers. As with most things involving Qantas – they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t…

        If we go back to the core point that Simon is making – Qantas made a decision to control the message and ride out the storm – as Simon later commented – Joyce made his statement then let everyone else work themselves into a frenzy.

  • Simon Dell

    Alex,

    I do see your point and I write a lot of articles on how to deal with complaints via social media, so your suggestions are not lost on me. I especially like you comment about communication in a crisis – made me laugh as I was in NY during their ‘hurricane’ and they take that lesson to the MAX! More press conferences than you could shake a stick at.

    However, I would say was beyond even crisis. In most crises, you can deliver an answer to a question, or offer advice or solution. What could Qantas say really? “I’m stuck in Melbourne, when are your flights going to be resuming?” It would have had to be the same answer every time: “flights are grounded indefinitely. Please check site x for more information.” How many times would they have needed to tweet that before everyone got even madder at them?

    The other rule I often teach people with social media is don’t get into it if you can’t generate enough content for it. So once again, what on earth were they going to say to people?

    Secondly, and this is a lesson a learned from a second-hand car salesman – after you’ve made your sales pitch, stop talking. The first person to talk will likely be the loser in the deal. Qantas were playing high stakes poker with everyone here. They had the winning hand. They just had to be quiet and let everyone else fold. Social media was one facet of their business that they kept quiet. Joyce made his announcement and firmly flipped the ball into every other court but his.

    I believe this was a calculated silence on Qantas’s part and I think it worked, hence the rest of the article.

    Finally, the big losers here were the government, namely Gillard. She’s claimed that Joyce just rung her and told her that it was happening. To my mind, a good leader would have said to Joyce ‘hold off on that action and I’ll get involved and sort this out.’ Not just shrug their shoulders and claim there was nothing they could do.

    • Hi Simon,

      Good response — and I broadly agree that Alan Joyce’s actions were primarily motivated by the industrial/political tactics that prompted the lockout and grounding in the first place. However, I don’t agree that it was for the best of the Qantas brand, and in my view, the damage to Qantas will be fairly long-term (or at least as long as Alan Joyce is CEO) – especially to do with trust and reliability. While price is a big factor for most people in picking airlines and tickets, so is whether the plane will actually reach the destination. This is the main reason (anecdotally) that many people avoid Tiger and Jetstar.

      I also don’t agree that Qantas “stopped talking”. Their PR machine was clearly operating at maximum capacity – except that it was focused on traditional media, especially briefing of newspaper journalists. This is why I found it odd that they left the social media space almost completely vacant.

      I think you have it spot on for how most organisations should deal with crises in your first para about the hurricane — “there’s no such thing as too much communication.”

      Anyway, thanks for the interesting article.