The first step in any crisis is not deciding what to say. It should be recognising that a crisis exists. Yet, with Qantas buffeted by a storm of cancellations, lost luggage, call-centre delays, layoffs and outsourced jobs, the airline seems to be showing no signs of moving to a crisis footing.
While damaging headlines alone don’t necessarily constitute an organisational crisis — and we don’t know what’s happening in the Qantas executive suite — there is no doubt a once-proud reputation is being shredded week after week.
Harvey Pitt, former chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, has said: “One of the most difficult problems executives face during a crisis is confronting the fact that a crisis actually exists.”
However a sampling of recent headlines about Qantas and CEO Alan Joyce would seem to remove that difficulty:
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- Qantas ‘a farce and a joke’: travellers rage at Alan Joyce over holiday chaos — Crikey;
- Inside the Qantas saga: ‘It is a wonder they can get a plane off the ground’ — The Saturday Paper;
- Qantas’ reputation is trashed and its customers are suffering. Why is Alan Joyce getting away with it? — SmartCompany;
- Being wrong, being bad, being Alan Joyce. Outrage again takes to the air, no graces spared — Intelligent Investor;
- Frustrated Qantas customers wait up to 20 hours on hold — A Current Affair;
- ‘Sickening betrayal’: Unions slam Qantas executive bonuses — news.com.au;
- What’s the point of Alan Joyce if he can’t make planes run on time? — Australian Financial Review; and
- Qantas has gone from beloved to disgraced by ‘treating the public with total disdain’ — Crikey.
Indeed, it was even reported that journalist and former advertising man Phillip Adams — who claims to have created Qantas’ iconic ‘Spirit of Australia’ slogan in the 1980s — angrily sought to remove the title, saying it is ‘sadly inappropriate’ to describe the airline under fire.
While Qantas is copping blame for some airport problems outside their control, no-one doubts the news media love to tear down a national icon. Some more so than others. And it’s equally obvious the airline and its CEO are facing a reputational crisis. Though it’s much less clear whether Qantas has moved into planned crisis management mode. How else to explain, for example, announcing executive bonuses in the midst of national outrage?
More importantly, how else to explain the low-key approach of the CEO? Alan Joyce responded to shocking call-centre delays earlier in the year, describing the situation as unacceptable, announcing new customer service staff, and later claiming it had been “fixed”.
But when it was recently reported that “Cancelled flights, delays reach record levels” — with Qantas the worst performer — it was left to an unnamed Qantas spokesperson to concede their record was “not at the level that our customers expect”.
This issue is not about airline-bashing. It’s about recognising there is a crisis and demonstrating leadership from the top.
Proactive leadership is the hallmark of effective crisis management.
Consider CEO Tony Fernandes after the crash of an AirAsia plane: “I am the leader of this company, and I have to take responsibility. That is why I am here. I am not running away from my obligations. Even though we don’t know what’s wrong, the passengers were on my aircraft and I have to take responsibility for that.”
The reputational crisis facing Qantas is very different from an air-crash disaster. But as commentator Imogen Champagne asked: “Where, oh where, is Alan Joyce?…. When will he show his face and explain what’s going on?”
Tony Jaques is an expert on issue and crisis management and risk communication. He is CEO of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes and his latest book is Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.