This year has not started kindly for many. In Japan, thousands reel from the physical, emotional and economic impact of one of the world’s most horrific natural disasters and it will be some time yet before any real assessment of the true impact of these cataclysmic events can begin.
When natural disasters strike, it is the instant, selfless reactions of individuals that can not only save lives, but in doing so also create the inspiration for others. For businesses caught up in these disasters, that same quickness of reaction when under pressure can be a crucial turning point for its brand and corporate reputation.
Following the Japanese disaster, Australian travel blogger Graham Robertson decided to cancel his flight from Sydney to Tokyo. He was subsequently confronted with a $1,100 (AUD, £678 Sterling) cancellation fee. Graham publicly tweeted to Cathay Pacific that he would be more than happy to pay the fee, if it went towards relief in Japan.
Cathay Pacific did not reply. After some time, customer services were in touch and eventually agreed to refund Graham and other ticketholders who booked before the 11th March. But his suggestion of a donation to the relief fund – which gained support on Cathay’s Twitter feed – has been resolutely ignored. And yet a more mundane question about check-in desks was answered, suggesting the airline is checking its Twitter replies and choosing to ignore many. To make matters worse, customers are suggesting that the airline has hiked up prices for flights out of Japan. All combined, it doesn’t look great.
In contrast, while the scale of the disaster is incomparable to Japan, the reaction of one airline to the recent earthquake in Christchurch demonstrates what solid leadership and honest consumer engagement can do for a brand during a time of crisis.
Within minutes of the Christchurch earthquake, Air New Zealand was reaching out to its customers – on the ground, through social and traditional media. This was led straight from the top with on-site support, impassioned posts and comments by CEO Rob Fyfe through the specially created Facebook group, Twitter account and blogs. Extra crew were on hand at airports across the country to help stranded, bereaved or simply distraught passengers. Additional flight capacity, special standby fares, and rescue flights into Christchurch were quickly established. Discount international airfares were available to help bring those who had been personally bereaved or affected by the earthquake to New Zealand. The result? Countless tweets, blogs and Facebook updates declaring support and appreciation for the airline, its staff, and its services. The goodwill demonstrated by Air New Zealand was returned in bucket loads by its customers. Try to find a negative comment about Air New Zealand during those weeks on any social media platform. The airline is now exploiting that support by continuing to entice donations and fundraising services for not only the Christchurch earthquake, but also for the Japan relief fund.
Though a disaster is the last way any brand or corporation should seek to boost their reputation, Air New Zealand’s response has generated a significant positive uplift for its leadership, the business and brand. And it’s true that in times of emergency, the expectations of a national flag carrier will always be greater than those of a foreign airline. But no carrier is exempt from listening and responding to customers in a time of crisis. If they do, they do so at great risk to their brand. As Cathay Pacific has learnt the hard way, saying nothing is not an option.