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On August 8, 2012, AirAsia, the world’s best low-cost airline, opened their regional headquarter in Jakarta to enhance their operational effectiveness in Southeast Asia.
AirAsia Group’s CEO Tony Fernandes commented at the event that ” The AirAsia ASEAN regional office would help the airline to better prepare itself for the implementation of the ASEAN Open Sky policy and the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.”.
Source article can be found here .
However, in one of the event photos that the LCC posted on Facebook, where their flight crew spotted traditional dresses from ASEAN countries to promote their diversity of destinations, the Ao Dai (traditional dress of Vietnam) was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a lady wearing a cheongsam, a body-hugging one-piece Chinese dress for women (circled in red in the photo above).
The photo was later picked up by the hawking-eyes of Vietnamese netizens and quickly spread like wildfire through the local online community. Hundreds of angry comments were posted on the photo to vent the anger and suggest boycotting the airline. Until the point of this writing, the photo was still not taken down yet. Link to the photo can be found here.
Social media, again, showed their prowess as the main engine behind the internet rage. Major local fan pages with hundreds of thousand followers posted about the story and asked for boycotting the LCC. Hot bloggers jumped in the conversation with their anger over the national dress mis-representation. Local popular newspapers also featured the news, such as this Thanh Nien Newspaper article.
After this morning, it seemed like the incident will even go further than yesterday when the event happened, and AirAsia will likely be simmered in a big PR crisis for the Vietnam market. It does affect the company’s latest effort in penetrating the market.
Strangely, the PR and Social Media team at the LCC did not take any prompt measure to solve this situation. Instead, they kept the photo and tried to talk their way out of this situation, which further angers the local netizens (See the photo below)
However, the explanation is completely in contrast to the fact highlighted in the original article that “Besides Indonesia, ASEAN comprises Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.” There are two possible scenarios: 1/ They did not have Vietnamese’s traditional dress in the photo; 2/ They mis-represented the Vietnam with cheongsam dress.
For an international company like AirAsia, cultural sensitivity should be their no.1 priority. However, they slipped on this case and hurt the pride of Vietnamese citizens.
At the moment, there are ongoing political tensions between nations in the region over the China Sea (locally referred to as “East Sea”) issue, so it is a very sensitive time for such a case to happen.
Why it happened and How to solve it
First of all, we must recognize we have a case of nationalism and business interest conflict here. AirAsia is faring quite well in Vietnam, and they are one of a few LCCs in this potential market. When they insulted the national pride of a country, either by mistake or on purpose, it would turn out to be bad for their business.
The company has let the incident prolong for a few days, and has not taken any decisive action to put an end to this crisis. Meanwhile, the photo is still kept on their Facebook fan pages and still being shared around the internet.
We must advocate the great impact this incident has caused to the company’s PR, and this blows up within a few days thanks to the prowess of social media.
There are a number of factors to be considered in the AirAsia’s corrective actions so far:
1/ They refused to admit what they did is wrong.
2/ They refused to apologize to Vietnamese netizens.
3/ They issued a vague explanations.
4/ They made the Vietnamese netizens, their potential customers, even angrier.
5/ They let the crisis go on for so long and without a solution.
There are a number of explanation to their crisis management strategy in this situation:
1/ They do not want to admit they are wrong.
2/ (Maybe) they want to ride on this wave to spread awareness of their brand, even though it is negative. It is highly unlikely, however still an approach worth looking out for.
3/ They plan to let the case die down by itself.
In either cases, great damage will be done to their business in Vietnam if the case gets unresolved.
We still did not see any involvement from their senior management team in the social media aspect of the case.
Some actions they could have taken:
1/ Take down the photo when the incident started to break out. It does not matter whethere they are right or wrong, the motto “Customer is always right” should be in the company culture. They made their customers angry, and they are still doing it.
2/ Discuss within their management team to decide which PR approach they should take in order to mitigate the damage.
3/ Run a media monitoring service to monitor the crisis, both online and offline.
4/ Decide an official company stance on the situation.
4/ Issue an official statement on their Facebook fan page, where everything began, with a clear, straight-forward explanation.
5/ Contact the public media outlets to rectify the situation.
We are still watching out for what the company decides to do next in order to solve this crisis.
On Thursday, August 9, AirAsia posted an apology on the comment section of the troubled photo:
“Dear fans, we apologise if the photo has upset our Vietnamese fans. That was never our intention. We would like to reiterate that the cheongsam costume in the photo is not representative of Vietnam. Our intention was not to showcase
national costumes from the 10 ASEAN nations, but to focus on the people of Asean. In short, our goal was to transcend national boundaries and promote an Asean regional awareness by focusing on the people, attire, sights and attractions of the entire ASEAN region.
Once again, we would like to apologize if the photo upset some of our fans. Please be assured that we hold Vietnam in high regard.”
It seemed that they have learnt the lesson. For an international company doing business overseas, cultural understanding is key to their success.
However, there is a questioning point to their statement above. There is no such thing as “people of Asean”. We have “Asian people”(which includes China), but ASEAN is a governing body for countries in South East Asia region.
After the statement above, the anger of local citizens still seemed not die down yet, as they keep posting new comments questioning about the incident.