‘As clear as mud’: Did Qantas land the plane in major PR move? We ask the experts

This week, Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson announced “one of the biggest expansions we’ve made to the Frequent Flyer program in its 35-year history,” namely, opening up 20 million new flight reward seats, while charging loyal customers more points for the privilege of redeeming them.

“The Qantas Frequent Flyer program is an integral part of Qantas and has always been about recognising our customers for their loyalty,” Hudson said.

“We’ve spent a lot of time listening to members about how we can better reward them.”

But, did Qantas land the plane – or is this the latest in the long line of crash landings? We asked the PR experts what they make of it all.

Phoebe Netto, founder and managing director, Pure Public Relations

The benefits are as clear as mud. You could read multiple articles reporting on what they’ve announced, and come up with very different sentiments and understandings of what it actually means.

When does it become available? Who is it for? Domestic versus international? They’ve made it complicated, and it feels like hard work.

It should never be hard work to receive a gift, particularly if you want that gift to be received well. When it becomes too complicated, it gets confused as a ploy. The assumption is that if it’s tricky to understand, it’s because Qantas are being tricky at our expense, and people will assume the negative.

That may not actually be the case, but it shouldn’t be this hard to make that distinction. Ultimately, what they have announced will have a neutral impact on their reputation at best, and to some, it will actually increase the cynicism towards the brand.

Qantas has a history of announcing credits and rewards that were convoluted, unusable and with changing conditions. From confusing pandemic credit extensions to unclear deadlines, the airline has proven itself a bad gift giver many times over.

Dr. Neryl East, speaker and leadership credibility expert

Qantas did the right thing in having the CEO do the talking. After their various controversies, it’s crucial for people to hear from the person at the top.

It’s been nearly a year since Ms Hudson was named as Qantas’ next CEO ahead of her taking the reins last September, yet her public profile between then and this week’s announcement has been low. I think Qantas customers and the community in general would have liked to have seen and heard Ms Hudson soon after her appointment, rather than waiting such a long time. Qantas has missed an opportunity to build public trust in their CEO.

Her media performance this week was quite solid, if a little rehearsed, and while things are headed in the right direction it remains to be seen whether she can recapture community support for the airline.

Luke Holland, head of strategic communications, Think HQ

Most observers would agree that this week’s announcement from Qantas has been a solid PR success. Almost every news outlet and bulletin has carried some sort of uncritical reworking of the Qantas media release, and 20 million additional flights has certainly achieved impressive watercooler cut-through.

The simple fact new Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson fronted it all is also a win itself, and a helpful palette-cleanser to the dog days of the Joyce era. But in truth, this was something of a low bar to clear, and seemed like a move to reposition the lucrative Qantas Frequent Flyer pipeline, characterised in some recent reporting as becoming something of a rort.

And can extra seats for high-value customers alone really fix the damage done to the brand thanks some shoddy workplace practices, accusations of price gouging and a problematic appearance of profiting from a pandemic? I’m not so sure. True leadership and innovation in the sector is values-based and people-centred, or at least presents as such.

It’s what allows Ed Bastian to steer Delta so impressively – protecting the company from all types of turbulence, a hinterland to draw on when things get choppy in the press or in the markets.

All of which makes the Qantas announcement seem like a sleight of hand – a distraction from deeper cultural problems. And I’m not sure Aussies will buy that in the long term, even if they can use their Points for the purchase.

Sally Branson, crisis communications expert

On the back of years of bad media and loss of goodwill, there has to be a good reason to make such a significant change to a points/customer loyalty program. The whole premise of points is to create loyalty and commitment. There has to be a robust economic reason or a long-term strategy to create change.

Off the bat, it feels like a confusing move in a competitive space. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like, unless you want to get the bare minimum, working out points is a full-time job. There are indeed businesses and Facebook groups built around getting the most out of your points.

There has been a great deal of speculation in the lead-up to yesterday’s announcements. Is this the announcement that heralds a new start for our eldest airline? All the messaging has been that this would be the “biggest” announcement ever. This build-up created speculation and uncertainty with the base – and that bedrock isn’t as stable as it once was. And with such a lead up? You would think that the comms should be crystal clear because that is what makes the difference in change management.

There have been emails and graphic fact sheets -the key takeaway is more availability, but the devil is truly in the detail here. And for the general flyer? It’s hard to grasp exactly what that detail is. It seems like the general big announcement is that there is more availability for frequent flyer rewards points, but they cost more.

My understanding is that for a new CEO, this is the sort of program change that can herald a new era – but when your base is already revolting – is this the right thing to be focusing on to create a new era and leave the crisis of the past behind? Going by the comments on the Qantas Points Collector page, it has been poorly received, and the general gist is “tell me you’re giving me less for more” and that the move is “bad” and hard to understand.

In times of general dissatisfaction and ongoing reputation damage, anything new is risky. Is it good enough to implement when it feels to many punters that Qantas can’t even get BAU right?

Jaid Hulsbosch, Managing Director at Hulsbosch

Hulsbosch previously worked for Qantas for over 25 years, and oversaw the flying kangaroo rebrand and redesign in 2007. Jaid has previously written about the brand damage the airline inflicted on itself for Mumbrella.

Australia’s biggest airline, Qantas is rebuilding its brand and working hard to win back the confidence and trust of its customers, and the announcement regarding their Frequent Flyer program is a positive step.

A sizeable portion of Qantas customers have said lately they feel they are paying plenty without incentives that reward their loyalty.

The airline’s relationship with customers should be passionate, professional, intelligent, transparent and engaging, and being driven by the fact that you are only as good as their last product or service delivery.

This is the biggest change to the FF program in 35 years, so it could be said, well overdue in rewarding a key audience base to Qantas and the FF members that has supported and stayed loyal to Qantas over the years.

Branding is to build relationships with consumers on an emotional level that resonates. It creates the desire to belong, and in this case being part of a unique travel loyalty program. It does reward the member base but its restorative and will now help grow the FF program.

The initiative is a much-needed return to the airline’s loyalty program which reestablishes recognition of customer loyalty and in return a sense of value for customers.

Key is to deliver on this value and keep up the communication to these members to create a consistent and meaningful dialogue within their primary brand principles of safety, respect, honesty and integrity – these will clearly embed the relationship between the Frequent Flyer program and Qantas in the minds of consumers.

Qantas have a highly specialised and professional team of committed people to make the FF program and brand transformation happen. With its global presence and sheer weight of expertise, Qantas should again aim to be Australia’s most loved brand.


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