Monday, November 29, 2010

Qantas A-380 Safety Crisis

Singapore's The Straits Times reported today that Qantas' Chief Executive Officer, Alan Joyce, has put the blame for the Qantas A-380 incident squarely on the shoulders of the Rolls-Royce's Trent 900 engine. The report quoted Alan Joyce as saying that “it was a new engine and it was absolutely clear that it had nothing to do with anything Qantas was doing”. Alan Joyce went on to substantiate his claims that in Qantas' own “research”, people are “aware that this is a Rolls-Royce problem” and that the “vast majority of people know that there's a problem with the design of the engines.” In his own assessment, Alan Joyce felt that Qantas' handling of the incident had probably enhanced its brand rather than damage it. When questioned about other incidents that have resulted in turnbacks of Qantas airplanes since the Nov 4th incident, Alan Joyce replied that “hundreds of them take place every year.”

From a crisis communications perspective, Qantas has obviously gone into crisis mode and Alan Joyce's statements are targeted at reassuring stakeholders on the safety of Qantas aircrafts.

My critique of Qantas' crisis communication efforts are as follows:

a. Poor Stakeholder Analysis. In my opinion, Qantas has failed to correctly identify the main stakeholder concern. In scenarios like this, stakeholders can accept that risks are part and parcel of flying. Stakeholder concern is thus whether the airline has in place the necessary measures to minimise the risk. By pushing the blame to Rolls-Royce, Qantas is implying that there is nothing wrong with their procedures. This is however contradicted by reports of several turnbacks that have occurred since the A-380 incident. To me, instead of blaming others, a more effective Message for Qantas would be to reassure their stakeholders on Qantas safety procedures and how it compares, or even exceeds, industry standards.

b. Tone. While I was not at the interview and thus cannot comment on Alan Joyce's actual tone, the “tone” of the newspaper report shows Qantas to be overly aggressive in pushing the blame to Rolls-Royce. Quotes of “our own research”, “a problem with the design of the engines”, and “the incident had probably enhanced its brand rather than damage it” all make Qantas appear desperate. This in my opinion, is more damaging than if Qantas had remained silent. The key lesson for PR Professionals here is the importance of correctly calibrating the Message. This is because it is one thing to raise the possibility of third party culpability, and another to rail-road the third party.

c. Use of Data. As mentioned in an earlier post, the use of survey data to support a Message is a double-edge sword. If the data can withstand scrutiny, then the Message will be believed. If however the data cannot withstand scrutiny, then the company's credibility is all but destroyed. By merely saying that “their own research showed”, it would appear to the lay-person that Qantas may be using questionable data to back-up its claim. In this instance, to make the data more credible, Alan Joyce should have offered more information about the scope of the survey i.e. who conducted it, what was the sample size, etc.

Qantas crisis communication efforts are underway and, by my assessment, off to a rocky start. Let's continue to monitor this campaign and see what else we can learn (both good and bad) from Qantas.

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