Sunday, October 30, 2011

Qantas v Unions: Pot or Kettle blacker?

Regardless of the outcome, reputations will be damaged in the boxing match featuring "Qantas vs the unions".

It remains to be seen whether the pot, or kettle, emerges with their name more blackened.

Both the unions and Qantas are likely to suffer some tarnish to their reputation given actions by both mean they are failing to deliver on basic service, let alone the brand promise.

I'm not an aviation or union expert, but I'm fascinated by the public aspect of the battle. Here are some observations of how it's playing out and how the PR is being handled.


Qantas is actually pretty good at PR. They've always seemed to be great at getting their message out - quickly, cleanly and with great execution discipline, and in keeping with community standards.

Which makes it all the more interesting (what really happened behind the scenes?) that today's shut down has drawn a proper bollocking from Government. Normally such a bold and big move would have been discussed with government, and the subject of much behind the scenes consultation - all designed to avoid exactly the reaction they got today.

Now that the Board and CEO have gone with what one online forum thread describes as "the nuclear option" it will be interesting to see how good they are at crisis communication while on the offensive. And whether they have a PR adviser or firm on board, or internal folk, with the ability to steer through this with the least damage.

Because damage there will be...more on that later.

Qantas has just moved from "victim" to "aggressor" in the public psyche - not only because they have "gone nuclear" but importantly because they've just stopped serving customers. When your customers are families trying to reunite, people with medical issues and travelling tweeters, what comes next will fill PR, crisis management and stakeholder theory text books for some time to come.

And I say "crisis communication" when talking about Qantas because it is, by definition, the communication needed (and often not employed properly) when the issues threaten the very continuity, or fundamental value and sustainability, of the organisation.

The Unions

The union movement is also great at PR - not necessarily the kissing babies style community PR but that great sport of intensely fought campaign style media designed to win both the war and the battle.

When industrial action stops flights it's harder for the unions to stay on the right side of public opinion.

Now, Qantas have handed the three unions representing baggage handlers, catering staff, engineers and long haul pilots, a huge advantage - the big group of people (passengers) who are now as cranky with Qantas as the unions are.

Its an advantage unlikely to be wasted if tonight's Fair Work Australia hearing doesn't produce at least a ceasefire to enable all parties to cool down - and flight service to resume.

News media

The Sydney Morning Herald is running a good mash-up style news feed here, with webcam from Qantas's currently empty check-in areas, regular news updates, images and comments from passengers via twitter and email.

The ABC's coverage is similar but with far greater weight to images and cool inclusions like twitter sentiment (62% negative on Alan Joyce when I saw it) through storify.

Analyst Tom Ballantyne says it was Qantas's only real option. Maybe so. But possibly it could have been executed with better behind-the-scenes stakeholder engagement - and they'd be coping less of a public blackening now.

Tony Abbott's line that it's a national repuation issue was echoed by commentator Greg Sheridan. Sadly, thanks to the newly installed paywall around The Australian's content you'll have to pay to read the full piece.

Online reputation management

It would appear the Qantas team is somewhat under resourced, with tweets outbound but, as one SMH reader notes, no staffers responding to stranded passengers via social media.

Not a great triumph for brand management online. All very well to offer smart-alec comments from the side line but if I were working with Qantas on this I'd have strongly suggested a social media desk staffed by (in this order of preference) management or customer service people who are social media savvy, their PR firm or an outsourced call centre used to dealing with investors or upscale customers - and yes they do exist and can be deployed quickly. It's really not that different to the media desk and elevated customer inbound call capacity that's a standard part of every crisis management team.

BlueChip has a crisis management desk wired and ready to seats a dozen people in close (but not too close) proximity so that communication can be exchanged quickly, answers developed and signed off on the fly and the team acts as one. Why is Qantas's equivalent not given permission to go further than one-way - taking passengers at least on the return journey in social media?

All those sympathetic outbound passenger tweets by Qantas (had they happened) would have helped tip Alan Joyce's twitter sentiment (and more importantly Qantas's) back into the green.

I'm guessing that having bet the farm on this move Alan Joyce was more worried about other alligators in the swamp than his own customers.

And yet neglected, those cranky flyers could yet pay Qantas back horribly for failing to provide swift, helpful responses in the right medium ie the one customers are using to vent, ask for help or simply share their latest news.

That's the whole point of the democratisation of influence we've seen with the rise and rise of social media.

Too few senior people (Boards and leadership teams) in financial services don't yet appreciate just how far reaching the evolution of online communication is - and that yes, it does reach into the boardrooms and mahogany rows (or well-lit hot desks) of those formally in charge.

At least Qantas is tweeting...even if its only one way.

It's too early to call it for either party in terms of media and public sentiment.

If I had to guess I'd say media will call it as the online sentiment does, at least short term.

Events at Fair Work Australia may yet see Qantas hailed as a reluctant hero - fighting back only to secure their survival.

Either way it's a public example of how PR wars are now fought, and won or lost.

Financial services Boards, CEOs and senior management could learn a lot by watching it unfold online.

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