Jonathan’s introduction to PR at a Midlands metal-basher was followed by senior positions at three PR agencies, including ten years as head of Porter Novelli’s global crisis practice. Here he advised organisations including Gillette, Disney, the NHS, Yahoo! and his dream client, the International Cricket Council, as it fought to preserve the good name of cricket following match-fixing allegations. With his crisis radar malfunctioning, he launched his own reputation management consultancy, Insignia Communications, one month before the global economy imploded. Insignia has been busy advising clients on crisis and issues management, change communication and online reputation management ever since. His personal blog can be found at www.insigniatalks.com
A typical crisis is out of the media spotlight within a week. So the fact that the fallout from the Qantas A380 engine failure is still making the news as we enter a third week says that there’s something unusual afoot.
One of the factors that keeps a crisis running is conflict. With three parties – Qantas, Airbus and Rolls Royce – involved, the potential for conflict is huge with each seeking to protect its own reputation (and minimise its financial cost). So how is each party doing in the reputation management stakes at this point? Here’s my scorecard:
Qantas: B+ Started very strongly, but performance is now coming under question
Qantas was quick to take action by grounding its fleet and filled the information vacuum with swift media engagement led by its CEO Alan Joyce. This enabled it not only to drive the media agenda, but also to underline and protect the core essence of the Qantas brand, safety. The company used its website to good effect to communicate the latest news, but was slow to embrace social media which is surprising given that it is a consumer brand (as an aside, B2B and corporate organisations find it even harder to know whether to utilise social media for reputation management or not). An unrelated incident which saw a second Qantas jet turn back with engine problems was unfortunate in its timing, but even more worrying is speculation that cost-cutting in the area of maintenance may have contributed to the A380 incident. If this allegation gains traction, then it could be hugely damaging for a brand built on safety. All the evidence shows that when a crisis strikes at the heart of the brand’s essence, it does most damage to reputation.
Airbus: C Solid, but unspectacular
Most attention in this crisis has focused on Qantas and RollsRoyce, Qantas because it is the consumer brand, and Rolls Royce because it seems clear that its engine lies at the heart of the incident. With this in mind, Airbus seems content to have played a passive role in crisis communication terms, despite the potential reputational and business harm that could be the ultimate result. With Rolls Royce perceived as the “bad guy” ( a role that Airbus has done nothing to challenge), Airbus is almost seen as a victim of the crisis rather than a perpetrator. It is almost certainly comforted by the fact that future aircraft could be powered by Pratt and Whitney engines if necessary.
Rolls Royce: D Absent from class
Rolls has suffered due to its minimalist approach to crisis communication. Two brief statements, no media interviews, a cancelled press conference and no use of social media mean that Rolls Royce has done little to influence perceptions of its role in the crisis. Whilst it has undoubtedly been working flat out to identify and resolve the technical issues, and talking regularly behind the scenes with its key stakeholders, it has left the way clear for other commentators to fill the media vacuum with their views as to what went wrong at Rolls. Indeed, some are now even speculating that Rolls knew about the problem beforehand, but failed to alert Qantas. Now, if true, that really would be damaging to reputation.
At this stage, I view Qantas as the organisation in best shape with Rolls at greatest risk. But the real winners and losers in terms of protecting reputational value will only become clear over a longer period of time (and of course it’s entirely possible that the only winners are the competitors of these three organisations). In the mean time, effective communication – as well as the right actions – will be essential to preserve their good names.
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