Will SIA’s questionable treatment of iconic Singapore girls leave a stain on the brand?

In the past week, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has come under attention from the mainstream media for its medical system.

According to a report from The Straits Times, crew members who went under anonymity explained that the current system discourages those who are genuinely ill from taking medical leave. The system reportedly discourages its flight cabin crew from taking medical leave even when unwell as it affects their work performance appraisal – and hence how they would be considered when it comes to promotions.

In a conversation with Marketing, while SIA declined to provide specific details on its performance management process and HR policies, it said that crew members who are given medical leave are encouraged to rest and recuperate at home. It also explained that operating with an MC is a “disciplinary lapse”.

While this may not be traditionally a marketing story, employee branding is something which is important when it comes to service-oriented industries. Recently, a 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found that employees on average are trusted more than CEOs. This is especially when it comes to messaging on employee/customer relations, financial earnings, crises, innovation, industry issues or programs which address societal issues.

Moreover, an increasing number of consumers are also actively looking to align themselves with brands who do good. As such we ask PR players if this incident will leave a stain on SIA's pristine image.

Edwin Yeo, general manager of Strategic Public Relations Group Singapore (SPRGS) said that it is possible, but he added that the airline's reputation will most likely be able to ride out the crisis.

SIA's brand is built on many different pillars and as much as most people would want them to treat their staff well, most customers would probably view this as a failure in their HR policies rather than their delivery of service.

However, Yeo added that employer branding is an important aspect of overall branding, even though many organisations may not place enough focus on it. This is especially important in the service industry as staffs are usually at the frontline when engaging with customers.

“If your staff believes enough in your value proposition to them, they became advocates for your brand, but it can also work the other way round if they think you have failed to live up to your brand promise,” Yeo said. However he added this would not likely impact their business.

Meanwhile, Lars Voedisch, managing director of PRecious Communications was of the view that an incident such as this may hamper the brand's reputation, especially with Millennials. While there is no hard and fast rule, he explained that consumers want to make more conscious decisions on who they engage with.

“Sometimes consumers are conscious enough to only choose brands that follow certain practices for the environment or HR. On the other hand, there is also a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach where consumers do not want to know certain issues, but are faced with a situation where these issues can't be ignored,” Voedisch said.

"You certainly don’t want to feel guilty when boarding the next SIA flight. People don’t like being made to feel guilty. It is also hard to ignore that by choosing a particular brand, you are indirectly supporting certain practices, in this case it's HR,” he said.

He added that given the Singapore Girl is the iconic face of the brand for many years, employee branding is a crucial part of a company’s overall branding. Moreover the image has been cultivated over decades. He added:

If you suddenly feel the Singapore Girl was just a facade, then it reflects badly on the brand - for consumers and employees and future hires.