AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes has given a lesson in crisis management

Statistically speaking the aviation industry can still lay claim to being the safest form of transport.

David Wilson says AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes has given a lesson in crisis managment
David Wilson says AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes has given a lesson in crisis managment
But it is not immune from the sort of disaster that tragically befell AirAsia on December 28, and neither is any form of transportation.

Coming so soon after a year of double tragedies for Malaysia Airlines in 2014 – the first in mysterious and still unexplained circumstances, and a second from a rocket attack over war-torn eastern Ukraine – the communication challenges for AirAsia have only just begun.

This was a first fatal aircraft crash for the low cost carrier in its 11-year history, and it appears to have resulted in the awful loss of all 162 passengers and crew on board flight QZ8501. 

The industry itself has learned much from previous tragedies, not least in how to deliver effective communication, and by any estimation this was a textbook public relations response from AirAsia to date. 

Coming amidst the peak festive holiday season, the unexplained loss of QZ8501 quickly grabbed media headlines. 

The company responded with founder and group CEO Tony Fernandes taking centre stage.

By doing so he demonstrated both his organisation’s commitment to learn what had happened and, more importantly in the early stages of the incident, its total support and care for those who had apparently lost their loved ones. 

Fernandes quickly made himself available to media, speaking alongside Government officials, to become a focal point for company updates. 

He was the man with the facts. 

His recognition for the bereaved reminded us that whilst most questions were still unanswered, the pressing responsibility for the company in the immediate aftermath of any accident had to be with those personally affected. 

Without having to say it directly, the implied message came through loud and clear that this airline boss, and his company, cared for its customers and staff.

Whilst most air accidents generally occur on take-off or landing, QZ8501 reminded us, like Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 nine months before, that transport carries risk at any stage of the journey. 

And when occurring over deep oceans, answers will not be delivered quickly.

So the communications challenge for AirAsia right now is how to address the unexplained and demonstrate the safe management of its continued operations without evidenced proof of what happened to QZ8501. 

With wreckage lying on the bottom of an ocean bed, unchallenged conjecture may quickly be interpreted as fact. 

This won’t bring back the deceased, but will simply give idle speculation unhelpful oxygen. 

Some football fans at the Fernandes-owned QPR were not ready to offer their owner breathing space on social media following a 3-0 giant-slaying defeat by Sheffield United. 

Fernandes was simply left to repeat the message that his priority lay with the crash families affected, and his soccer club was in the hands of its capable management team. That’s right.

Back in Indonesia and Malaysia, questions will hopefully begin to be addressed as the weeks pass by. 

The Fernandes-led AirAsia management team must deal with these just as effectively as they have done to date, though it could take many months for definitive answers to start emerging. 

This means that as recovery teams struggle in poor weather conditions to find the fuselage, along with the aircraft’s black box flight data and voice recorders, so choppy waters will remain for the company, those ministries with oversight and the industry as a whole. 

Whatever lessons can be learned to improve the safe passage of passengers and crew in years to come, they must, and I’m certain they will be quickly adopted without delay.

David Wilson is group managing director at Bell Pottinger

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