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Tony Fernandes (1)

Will Tony Fernandes’ heartfelt apology navigate AirAsia out of the PR storm?

In a heartfelt video post, AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes (pictured) has apologised for what came across as support for politics at a professional level which saw the beloved Malaysian CEO come under fire.

Fernandes, who was previously quoted to owing the company’s success “to the government” led by the former PM Najib Razak, and having an AirAsia aircraft sport the livery “Hebatkan Negaraku” (Make My Country Greater),  said the steps were done so under pressure, forcing him to cave.

In a Facebook video, which has now garnered over 1.4 million views, 50k reactions, 31,193 shares and 8.2k comments, Fernandes apologised for the pain and the hurt he has caused for buckling under pressure, adding that it was a decision made at the spur of the moment to protect the company, which he describes as his “baby”.

“My views are very much the same as yours,” he said, adding that he believes in a new Malaysia, one that is just and fair. Reactions to his video were mixed, as some netizens remained sceptical of his intentions, while others praised him for being forthcoming.

In case you don’t have time to watch the seven-minute long video, we’ve got you covered.

Fernandes stated that it all started when he came under “intense pressure” from the Prime Minister’s Office to have AirAsia X’s chairman Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz step down from the board when she got involved with the opposition. Fernandes however, did not deem this to be fair and fought to keep her in her position.

Another move that led to the “grave error of judgement”, said Fernandes, was when the company decided to reduce ticket prices to make the flights more affordable so Malaysians could fly home and vote. This led to the airline coming under pressure from the Malaysian Aviation Commission to cancel all flights. Explaining his decision to do so, Fernandes said that going into the decision, he knew it “wouldn’t be popular with the government”. But as an airline he felt it was the company’s calling to serve the rakyat and its people. Moreover, in previous elections, AirAsia was not large enough as an airline and  “couldn’t make a difference”, but this time around, it could.

“Foolishly, I thought by doing the video which I felt was fairly neutral and factual, [along with] the plane from Kota Kinabalu [carrying the livery of BN], [it] would appease the government and protect the jobs of all staff, and more importantly the very essence of allowing 18 million to fly every year at low fares,” he added.

As AirAsia is in a “very regulated industry” which always requires the approval of the government, from flights to airport taxes and routes, Fernandes said it is “never very easy” running an airline. He added that one must always support the government of the day. At the end of the day, he added in a heartfelt apology, that he was sorry for the pain caused to the Malaysian people.

All is forgiven?

In a statement to A+M, Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and MD of PRecious Communications said the video helps “put things into perspective” as it shows the complexity of the situation he was caught in (albeit being a little lengthy).

“At the end of the day Fernandes did what he believed he had to do to safeguard his staff and customers. He admits that he feels it was a wrong judgement call and that’s why he’s apologising. And he hopes that in the greater scheme of things people can understand and forgive,” Voedisch added.

Whether or not his apology will have an impact on consumers and their impression of AirAsia, Voedisch said time should be given for emotions to cool down before revisiting the incident to judge the real impact.

“Some people may feel betrayed and that’s not something one, though sincere, apology can fix. Also, the video is on a very fine line between justification and apology,” he said. As such, it is up to Malaysians to decide if they wish to accept it.

Madhavi Tumkur, founder and director of Enterprise PR, said apologies are always welcome when it comes to diffusing a situation, and they go a long way in bringing difficult situations under control.

“It is even more welcome when it is meant genuinely, which Fernandes has done. At the same time, he explained his position as to why he said, what he said –  to protect the jobs of his staff,” she added. Nonetheless, mixing anything with politics – be it friendship, religion or even humour – is perilous and needs to be thought through well.

“Consumers typically select a brand for the quality of products or services it offers, but will become wary of that brand if the company in question seems to be leaning towards a certain rhetoric or agenda that is opposite to their own set of beliefs,” Tumkur said.

She added that today’s consumers wield plenty of power, where one wrong tweet or a poorly communicated statement can result in the loss of face or drop in share value. However, companies often do not understand this concept well. For every person that is a public figure, it is important to think through what they are saying and how it will reflect on not just them but the entire company, she added.

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