Ah, Qantas, the airline that split a nation.

Much has been written in the media about Alan Joyce’s decision to ground Qantas flights. Geoff Lemon penned the best opening line of any opinion piece this year in his Tie Me Bloody Kangaroo Down op ed supporting the industrial action and David Penberthy pondered his thoughts supporting Joyce’s actions in this pro  Alan Joyce  piece but both agreed it was a PR disaster.

Whether you are for or against these industrial and CEO antics, you have to admit the entire Alan Joyce and Qantas debacle is a lesson in how not to handle PR, brand management and social media during a crisis.

PR crisis rule number one – timing is everything

CEO salaries and bonuses always make front page news simply by their seven figure nature in a world dominated by recession and an Occupy Movement that is addressing corporate greed around the globe and making the nightly news in the process. In the current climate Alan Joyce’s multi milliondollar bonus was destined to make the papers, that’s a given.

Whether he chose to accept the bonus or delay the discussion of bonus until six to twelve months after the grounding of planes he had set into place for the next day would, as it turned out, make the world of difference to the public perception of Alan Joyce the person, a perception that is driven by opinion pieces, editorial and social media.

Should he have chosen to forego a bonus for the next six months (a bonus he would inevitably be given) to show his personal commitment to addressing Qantas’ current financial road downhill he would have created a great positive PR story.  He may even have created a feeling of empathy for his position.

The grounding of Qantas planes the next day became as much about his bonus and salary as it was about saving Qantas. The reasons for his decision were lost in the fury from those shocked by his ‘corporate greed’, which was never the real issue.

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PR crisis management rule number two – empathy is everything.

Sixty eight thousand travellers were impacted by the ‘not so sudden’ decision to ‘suddenly’ ground the Qantas fleet worldwide.  I have no doubt that Alan Joyce and the board at Qantas have far more experience at a multi national level than the rest of us and a right to address their business issues in a way they feel effective for them.

However, when crisis occurs, and the grounding of an airline is a crisis for those impacted, empathy for the victims is the first emotion a company must purvey. Alan Joyce could well be media trained by Anna Bligh’s approach during the Queensland floods when addressing a press conference. Body language and presentation can mean the difference between saying ‘sorry’ and meaning ‘sorry’.

Our television screens were infested with smiling images of Alan Joyce showing Sixty Minutes the method behind his decisions while unsmiling travellers still sat stranded.

Empathy FROM the company creates empathy FOR the company.

The scripted mechanical social media handling of the Qantas grounding created more bad PR as written up by Fairfax in this piece.  While Qantas were handling social media with an empirical corporate voice, Virgin were addressing the stranded with a personal voice of compassion as the saviours of the day.

Again, it’s all in the language. Emotive language can go a long way in keeping your customers (and the media) onside.

Qantas have some excellent internal PR staff who understand media relations, social media and public perception but one can only wonder if the guys at the top dictated or listened.

This post was published on November 2, 2011.