Crisis Management Lessons from Tony Fernandes

“I apologize profusely. 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.”

This immediate ownership of Tony Fernanades, Group CEO of AirAsia after the fatal disappearance disaster of flight QZ8501 and his actions thereafter convincingly assured people that he is compassionate, on the job, and doing his best to communicate as clearly as possible.

As a Communications professional, one can’t miss the striking contrast of how differently Malaysian Airlines handled its crisis communications during disappearance of Flight MH370. Their failure to provide accurate information and clearly communicate on what was happening and reluctance to admit they didn’t do anything for about the first four or five hours just added fuel to the fire. In the given situation, a reluctance to admit they didn’t have the necessary resources and the capability to resolve this problem just escalated the problem.  They didn’t act swiftly enough, nor did they stay on top of the issue, providing updates, or even just communicating that there were not any updates to be made.

While the airline jumped into action through public relations and social media, many of its statements were cryptic and unclear. The confusion and miscommunication that prevailed for days after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 opened the door to speculation from countless voices across news outlets, blogs and social media.

In comparison, we saw AirAsia’s Fernandes out front- his understanding of the power of social media in today’s times, and how it can save reputations in a crisis was undeniably evident. He was using twitter to post a stream of messages to communicate frequently with staff, passengers, and investors.  His highly visible compassion and attention to finer details such as changing the airline’s bright red logo to a somber gray online struck a chord with everyone – including the passengers’ families and media.

A fatal crash is typically a make-or-break event for an airline. Irrespective of the cause, the professionalism and authenticity of the airline’s response are crucial for its reputation to recover. From accepting responsibility, appropriate key messages to a social media strategy for crisis situations, AirAsia’s crisis management excels on almost all parameters defined by International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s ‘GUIDE TO COMMUNICATING IN AN EMERGENCY’. If AirAsia bounces back from its first fatal disaster, much of the credit will go to its effusive founder Tony Fernandes and his communication skills.

Indeed, this Airlines’ initial response to the tragedy is exemplary case of crisis communications.

After all, the era of purely reactive crisis communication is over. Social has arrived on the scene…