What should Qantas do next? We ask the PR crisis experts

In the 1988 film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman’s character famously points out that Qantas has never had a crash.

And while that remains true for the airline’s planes, the same can’t be said for its brand. What we’ve witnessed over the past few months has all the hallmarks of a disaster, with beleaguered CEO Alan Joyce pulling out of the wreckage yesterday, and handing the keys to Vanessa Hudson.

She has a mighty rebuilding job ahead of her.

According to the June 2023 Roy Morgan Risk Monitor survey, which measures levels of trust and distrust of Australian brands, Qantas is the country’s most distrusted airline. Of the thousand-plus brands the survey covers, across 26 industries, Qantas is the 13th most distrusted brand in the country.

One year earlier, Qantas was the sixth most-trusted brand overall, behind Woolworths, Coles, Bunnings, ALDI, and Kmart.

“Qantas’ refusal to pay back any of the $2.7 billion in COVID government handouts – even after announcing an annual profit of $2.5 billion and the class action by hundreds of thousands of customers fuelled by the airline’s unwillingness to refund $2 billion in cancelled flights, are all having an impact on distrust,” Roy Morgan’s report summarised.

Keep in mind, this national heat check was taken in June, before the recent scandals around selling already-cancelled flights, the airline’s status as beneficiary of the government’s decision to block Qatar flights that could have resulted in lower fares for travellers, and Joyce’s Senate grilling over high airfares after Qantas banked a record profit.

Put simply, things are a mess. We asked two of the country’s top PR crisis management experts what Qantas needs to do to repair its image.

Peter Wilkinson, chair of Wilkinson Butler

Joyce going ASAP is good.

While I’ll miss Joe Aston’s eviscerations, Qantas won’t. Joyce should have gone earlier.

The fix isn’t words, it’s actions. Qantas’ issues are operational. I suspect the problems are rooted in the pandemic and an ill-prepared Qantas board, including Joyce. They weren’t nimble or clever enough, or had too much hubris, to anticipate what was coming. They were not crisis-fit.

The corporate affairs people too, share blame. If they were crisis-fit they would have been anticipating what was coming.

Remember, this was a slowly evolving crisis, so there was plenty of time for considered forecasting, and multiple rehearsals. My gut-feel is they were behaving tactically on daily issues, not strategically looking ahead, which is a common mistake in a drawn-out crisis.

Potential weaknesses could have been anticipated – there is really no good excuse for, for instance, booking cancelled flights, or allowing Albo’s son in the chairman’s lounge.

However, Qantas customers are well-educated and savvy. Once the issues are fixed, the reputation repair will be relatively quick.

Benjamin Haslem, director, media and public affairs, at ICON Reputation

Rebuilding trust takes time: Qantas must consistently deliver on its promises, maintain transparency, and demonstrate a commitment to improving the customer experience over the long term.

Vanessa Hudson starting in the role today should be positioned as a new broom, cleaning the place up, and returning Qantas to what it was in the past – a world class airline, with great customer service and an unparalleled safety record.

Qantas can use the end of the Joyce and Covid era as the chance for a reset. But it must deliver – all the PR and brand management in the world won’t help if your product doesn’t match up.

The airline has apologised for selling tickets for cancelled flights and for letting its standards fall. It’s a promising start, but Ms Hudson now needs to come out and apologise in person – she needs to own it.

She needs to show empathy and understanding for the public’s concerns and frustrations.

She needs to do a swag of media appearances — 7:30, breakfast TV and radio, Radio National breakfast, AM,  A Current Affair — to let the public get to know her.

A targeted social media strategy should also be implemented to complement the traditional media campaign.

Make tangible commitments to listen and act – set measurable targets around flight cancellations; call centre wait times; numbers of frequent flyer seats.

Qantas did the right thing, in scrapping the expiry date on unredeemed Qantas credits.

It should look at other sweeteners but needs to avoid being seen to be trying and buy back the public’s support – do simple things like increase flights to regional areas; increase call centre staff; upgrade online booking systems; make it easier to redeem frequent flyer points – it’s all about improving the customer’s experience.




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