Analysis: Changi Airport Group faces social disapproval due to chairman's domestic legal dispute

Changi Airport Group (CAG) has recently unwittingly made headlines after the Singapore High Court overturned the conviction on theft charges sentenced involving its chairman Liew Mun Leong and his domestic helper Parti Liyani. The case made headlines after the Indonesian national appealed her case, claiming she was framed by Liew’s family to prevent her from lodging a complaint against the family to MOM for illegal work deployment. According to several media reports, the judge allowed the appeal after he found that there was an “improper motive” for Liew's accusation. Since the news came to light, netizens have unfortunately taken to the CAG's Facebook page to urge the company to remove Liew from its leadership team and break its silence on the matter.

"CAG your silence and inaction speak volumes on your views of your chairman’s actions. When other legit companies discover misconduct by their employees, they terminate their employment relationship immediately. By not doing this swiftly, you are condoning his actions," said one netizen. Others added that they would reconsider supporting the brand in the future due to the incident.

According to data gathered from Truescope, online chatter has been rampant on social media, with over 9000 comments on various posts. Among the discussions, some netizens found the actions of Liew and his family unreasonable, while others questioned the competency of Liew as chairman of CAG. Meanwhile, some netizens asked if Liew will resign or be removed from his position, while a few others asked if CAG will be issuing a statement on its stand regarding the case. When contacted by Marketing, a spokesperson from CAG said the company is aware of the public sentiments, but has no comments for now.

The incident with CAG's chairman reflects a shifting consumer perceptive when it comes to which brands they choose to support. In 2019, Edelman's Trust Barometer report found that consumers do not base their purchase decision entirely on product or customer experience alone, but also have growing concerns about the impact the brand has on society. The 2020 report also said that consumers expect leaders to demonstrate public leadership, especially when it comes to addressing crises. Given that Changi Airport is a much-loved brand in Singapore, repeatedly being named the world's best airport for the eighth consecutive year, it comes as no surprise that netizens have expressed their displeasure at the recent news. 

Despite the conversation on the social channels, Jose Raymond, chief strategy office of SW Strategies, a communications strategy firm with offices in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, said from a reputation damage perspective, any impact to the CAG's brand reputation would still be minimal for now as consumers do not necessarily associate Changi Airport with Liew. However, the more Liew’s role is highlighted in relation to the court incident and subsequent investigations, the more it is likely that the brand's reputation would be impacted as members of the public would associate Changi Airport with its current chairman of the Board who is embroiled in an issue which may have exposed his personal moral and ethical standards.

Prior to this issue, it is very likely that general members of the public did not even know that Liew was its chairman of the board of directors.

Raymond added that all the group can do for now is to prevent having the chairman front the media, new initiatives or even have any public facing opportunities. If the brand wishes to take an extreme stand, CAG's board of directors could consider having Liew take a leave of absence until every bit of current investigation is completed, with findings made public.

Taking a similar point of view is Nicholas Fang, managing director of PR firm Black Dot. Fang agreed with Raymond that it is unlikely that a personal issue involving its senior leadership will have long-lasting impact on that brand, compared to other factors such as the global recession and effects of COVID-19 on the aviation industry as a whole.

"There is potentially the risk of some negative fall-out from the current issue in the short term. However, it is unlikely that this will completely undo the good work done by the company and the entire CAG team over the past decades, and should not impact the group’s future in the decades ahead," Fang said.

When it comes to the next steps CAG should take, Fang said CAG should focus on its core messaging as it pertains to its operations and the challenges that will persist in the months ahead. "These represent by far the most pressing danger for the company as a whole," he added.

Speaking under the condition of anonymity, another senior PR professional said that in terms of the online vitriol, when a brand opens itself up to social, it has to remember that it is a conversation, and sometimes you won't always like what you hear. She said:

What this reminds us is that corporate leadership will be held to account for more than just financial performance. And brand love can be quickly lost by management missteps.

She added that unfortunately at this juncture, the brand has to let people who feel let down, have their say.

“Changi Airport isn't just a place or even a brand - it's a source of national pride. The disappointment is understandable,” she said, adding that whether or not this incident will have a long-term impact will hinge on what steps CAG chooses to take next.

“I would advice the brand to let the sentiment ride for now. Let people have their say and voice their feelings. Beyond that - it all depends on what actions CAG takes,” she added.

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