Air New Zealand Shows How to Fight Back

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    [This is a guest blog from “Managing Outcomes,” published by Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, for people who work in issue and crisis management and strive for planned, positive outcomes. You can subscribe to his newsletter at www.issueoutcomes.com.au]

    Every manager who has ever wanted to beat up on an ill-informed or aggressive journalist in the midst of a serious corporate issue can take a lesson from the CEO of Air New Zealand.

    At a time when New Zealand’s national airline was discussing a proposed alliance with Australian-based Virgin Blue, the news and comment magazine The Listener published an intemperate editorial entitled “Turbulence ahead” accusing Air NZ of going “determinedly downmarket on its Australian and Pacific routes” and suggested the “downgrade” would move the airline towards budget standard on international short-haul flights?

    Although Air NZ has an acknowedged reputation for very open communication with the news media, angry CEO Rob Fyfe must have considered giving the magazine “both barrels between the eyes” but decided instead on a response which was both clever and effective.

    Playing on the name of its accuser, Air NZ produced a video response entirely in sign language, with subtitles. It began: “Dear Listener, Ironically it seems you haven’t been listening to what we’ve got to say, you’re hardly living up to your name . . . As you appear to have turned a deaf ear to us we thought it might be best to respond in a language you may be more familar with.” The sign language video concluded: “Now we’re all guilty of selective hearing sometimes, but we’ve got to say you did a fantastic job of not listening to the facts. If you’d like to talk this through further, lend us you ear and give us a call.”

    The video (below) featured the CEO himself and, just to drive the point home, was accompanied by a formal press statement written entirely in the printed version of sign language except for the heading: “We’ve worked bloody hard to create an airline New Zealanders can be proud of and it really winds me up when someone gives us a gratuitous slap.”

    Needless to say the video also got posted on Youtube, where thousands of viewers have enjoyed the airline having fun at the expense of the hapless magazine.

    But beyond the fun element is the serious question of how best to respond when under attack. Too often the corporate first reaction is an angry denial. Wry humour like this is probably not appropriate during a crisis when lives or the environment are at stake. However it is a reminder that sometimes it is better to whisper than to shout. The Biblical proverb has it: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” Perhaps the modern version is “Don’t get mad, get even.”

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