Social Mixer 2024 Singapore
Did AirAsia's CEO cross the line with his topless LinkedIn Post?

Did AirAsia's CEO cross the line with his topless LinkedIn Post?

share on

A LinkedIn post by AirAsia and Capital A chief Tony Fernandes has raised some eyebrows within the business community and caught the attention of the outspoken advertising veteran Cindy Gallop. While the post said that Fernandes and his team had finalised Capital A structure, what really stood out was the chief's topless body getting a massage as he conducted the meeting.

“Got to love Indonesia and AirAsia culture that I can have a massage and do a management meeting,” the post said.

Since then, the post was picked up by Gallop who said that “In no universe is this a good or appropriate idea – in the meeting, as a photograph, nor on LinkedIn.” She then called upon LinkedIn to remove the inappropriate posts, adding that it hadn’t yet done so.

Don't miss: AirAsia moves from iconic red to green for new digital wing. Why?

In a statement to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, a spokesperson from the communications team at AirAsia said the unconventional sharing may have raised eyebrows for some, but the recent image was taken during a unique moment when Fernandes was multitasking, juggling a management meeting and a brief shoulder massage session.

“Everyone on the call, including our female management was asked if they are comfortable if he had a shoulder massage, after 18 hours of work. We have a fun, friendly and open culture at Capital A that values productivity, efficiency as well as transparency,” she said.

She added: 

Lastly, we want to note this image was shared with full approval from the PR department, and no comments were intentionally deleted.

Meanwhile, several industry professionals have called out the post saying that it isn’t the best way to show off work culture. Others said that when AirAsia claimed to have an open culture, this isn’t what was expected.

Amongst those who spoke out was Rebecca Nadilo, the new managing director at iris Singapore who said that she doesn’t believe women in the company would feel comfortable or safe in this context. “Given you're the boss, they likely won't challenge you or say anything. Please for their sake, listen to the comments you've deleted on this post. You are clearly a smart leader that cares about culture, but this isn't the way to create a supportive, safe one,” she said.

In a statement to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Nadilo said the tone-deaf post was not open but rather offensive.

“I really don’t think many women would have felt comfortable in this situation, and people cannot hide behind ‘Well I asked them’ because when you’re the boss, you have to assume people aren’t going to feel confident or comfortable speaking up against you,” she said.

Alarming and offensive or acceptable?

Communications practitioner Charu Srivastava, founder of TriOn & Co said that whatever his intentions might have been, the post and the actual actions are “absolutely inappropriate”.

“Let us call a spade a spade - this is a post about a chief executive of a company conducting a work meeting while getting massaged, topless. In my opinion, we should be very worried if any company or leader is even debating whether this behaviour is acceptable or not,” she added.

She added that the power imbalance of the top “guy” in a company deciding to do this leaves little room for juniors to raise objections and creates precedence of what is proper workplace conduct.

Finding a balance of “openness”

“It's clear that his intention may have been to showcase an open and unconventional work culture,” said Ashvin Anamalai, CEO of DNA Creative Communications. However, it's essential to strike a balance between promoting a positive work culture and maintaining professionalism, considering the norms and expectations of a company where comfort, professionalism, and hospitality are important aspects of operations.

In this instance, the line between sharing and oversharing appears to have been crossed.

“From a public communications perspective, AirAsia's corporate social media accounts have indeed long been used effectively to promote an open work culture that is both healthy and appealing, and this particular post by its most prominent figure fell short of the mark,” he said.

However, not too long ago, AirAsia Thailand CEO was also called out for speaking rudely to a staffwhere the internal culture at the company came into question. CEO Tassapon Bijleveld was insulting a female employee where the female employee was speaking when Bijleveld suddenly interrupted and said, “What’s your f**cking question, come on.”

The female employee then explained herself and he interjected once again with "What's your question, come on. Don't talk a lot, too much to talk.” Bijleveld also told the female employee to "shut up" when she started speaking in Thai.

A leader sets the standards of how everyone else in the organisation behaves, explained Kevin Kan, founder of BreakOut consulting.

“You set the tone for what is or is not appropriate behaviour.  Not only are you a role model for the organisation but you are also representing the brand to the public.  You need to ask yourself if this is appropriate for your personal brand or is this appropriate for my credibility to investors and shareholders,” he said.

Kan added that taking an alternative view, some may view the semi-naked post of Tony Fernandes getting a massage during a virtual meeting as a practical use of time for a busy executive.  Others might say that this post represents Tony Fernandes’ leadership authenticity where he is just showing how he incorporates self-care into his busy schedule.

But at the end of the day, it is important to remember that a business is a conservative environment, and running a business meeting and then subsequently posting a semi-naked photo on a professional social network platform may seem unprofessional to some.  

An all-access CEO – A PR nightmare?

Fernandes, much like Musk and several other outspoken CEOs, are very much in control of their own communication on social media – which in some instances, can backfire.

“I do not envy the responsibilities on the shoulders of these in-house communications teams,” said Srivastava.

But having a proactive leader is not necessarily a bad thing if trust can be built between leaders and communications teams. At the end of the day, there needs to be a clear understanding and ground rules guiding proactive communications by such leaders.

Priya Khalidas, head of growth at iris Singapore added that PR teams must also be bold to stand up to bosses and speak up about what’s right and wrong. “I don’t think any company should encourage and promote people baring their bodies, in meetings while getting a massage as a culture,” she said.

When all is done and dusted, communications teams need to think of the big picture and not just of one individual as they effectively manage personalities by providing education and guidance, maintaining clear communication, setting boundaries, monitoring social media, and anticipating audience reactions through data.

“By doing so, they ensure that any actions by any member representing the brand align with the company's brand and values while leveraging their strengths,” argued Anamalai.

“Whether negative or positive, public communications allow potential customers and clients to know the people and values behind the brand, and allows them to connect with the business in a more meaningful way. As a PR practitioner - Its always best to stay on the positive side of things.”

Related articles: 
Former AirAsia and EVOS Esports marketer Allan Phang switches to art industry
AirAsia partners alternative protein start-up Green Rebel for meatless meals onboard
AirAsia picks new regional head of partnerships for digital arm

share on

Follow us on our Telegram channel for the latest updates in the marketing and advertising scene.

Free newsletter

Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top marketing stories.

We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's marketing development – for free.

subscribe now open in new window