The CEO of Air Asia and owner of QPR Tony Fernandes faced his biggest challenge last month when an Airasia flight was sadly reported missing. On December 28th at 7:24 hours Airasia reported the QZ8501 flight from Surabaya to Singapore had lost contact. Updates were shared with the media throughout the day and just two days later unfortunately it was reported that the aircraft had crashed over the Java Sea and some debris had already been found. With over a hundred passengers and crew on board Fernandes was forced into the front seat as Indonesia was seen to depend on him.
Fernandes has been the CEO since 2001 and by all accounts he is a likeable character with a cult celebrity status in Indonesia who is seen as transforming the airline. As we know, any crisis of any nature is a huge test for a high profile CEO, but his approach has been described as a “well-oiled communications machine.” His hands-on, honest and transparent approach has managed a rapid response to this horrible situation.
For fronting platforms Fernandes made the decision to post all information via social media. The Airasia Twitter and Facebook page linked statements published to reach a wider audience quickly. Fernandes also changed the Airasia logo from bright red to grey in respect to those affected by this disaster, and then created the hashtag #togetherwestand, posting comments on how this was his “worst nightmare” but he has “full faith in Indonesia.” Contact numbers were also released to ensure families affected were fully aware of the support available. I think this approach should be commended: even in the airline’s darkest hour he was handling the situation with integrity and trying to give as much information out as possible. It can be hard to do this in the war-room of a crisis but I always advise my clients that it is best to get the correct information out to the wider public as soon as possible.
Compared to the scripted communication of the mystery disappearance of the Malaysia flight back in March, Fernandes is looking at the priorities. Even though it is rather different circumstances Fernandes is proving what we all know in crisis communications that direct and genuine/real compassion is what the public need in times of crisis. The Malaysian airline was criticised for its lack of urgency, transparency in releasing information and co-ordination on where to search. The hunt for MH370 is the longest in the history of modern aviation and still goes on. I will be surprised if they ever find it but the way they handled some of the information was pretty poor.
In comparison, reported Joko Widodo (who is running for president this year in Indonesia) was photographed in December on board an aircraft showing his involvement in the search for the remains of the Airasia flight. Airasia is attempting to eliminate secrecy and paranoia surrounding this crisis making it appear a lot less sinister than the missing Malaysian flight crisis that is still shrouded in conspiracy theories due to its vacuum of misinformation.
Social media posts for Airasia include information regarding the airlines cooperation with relevant authorities, cause of the incident, emergency help lines for family members affected, information regarding where the debris were found in the Java Sea and confirming their commitment to this disaster.
Within hours of the plane confirmed lost, Fernandes’ involvement was obvious. “Human Spirit is amazing. Stay strong Airasia all stars.” His modest, natural emotive statements showed that honest compassion and obvious leadership is often all that is needed to help provide some reassurance that all that can be done is being done. He displayed that those affected are paramount and deserve direct answers in times of desperation. He also released a later statement of how he is “humbled” by the help of BASARNAS, Army, Navy, Air Force and Police in Indonesia.
I think there has been a real contrast between the two approaches and it shows how powerful a strong leader can be in such sad circumstances if he is open, transparent and the company in question does everything it can do to keep the public informed.
Thanks to Melanie Heavisides for helping me pull some of my research together for this.