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Poor customer support, poor handling of a crisis and failing to live up to its image are three main factors that can dent a brand’s image, say experts. Tata-owned Air India perhaps missed all three when it dealt with the now famous “pee-gate” incidents that took place on-air in its international flights a couple of months back but came to the fore only now after media reported about it. 

In the first incident that happened on November 26, a drunk corporate executive allegedly urinated on a female senior citizen in her seventies. Similarly, on December 6, another male passenger allegedly urinated on the blanket of a woman passenger. 

Criticism, memes and cartoons are being shared to ridicule the airline for its alleged mishandling of the incidents. Even some corporate leaders took a dig on the brand. 

The incidents have come at a time when the airline is fast recovering from its troubled past that was mired with poor customer service, bureaucratic lethargy and losses. Air India is close to placing orders for as many as 500 jetliners that could be worth more than $100 billion as it carves out an ambitious renaissance under the Tata Group. The Group, which regained its control on the airline in January 2022 after almost 69 years, has also announced a merger of all its airlines, including full service carriers Air India and Vistara and budget airlines Air India Express and AirAsia India.

The combined entity has a current fleet of 220 aircraft, cementing Air India’s position as the country’s largest international carrier and second largest in the domestic market after IndiGo, experts say. 

Brand Image 

The brand image or reputation can be pretty fragile, even for legacy brands, like Air India, which have a high recall value and familiarity quotient.

Air India was amongst the most loved brands of independent India and continued to remain so till the post-liberalisation era of the 1990s, Samit Sinha, Founder & Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, says. 

“Despite the brand having fallen from grace in the last two or three decades, it remains a strong name and still carries enormous residual goodwill and does resonate amongst Indians in general,” says Sinha, adding that this demonstrates a great deal of brand resilience and it is what guided the Tata Group’s decision to reacquire the airline beyond sentiment. 

“However, in the age of social media, only one crisis is enough to damage customers’ love and trust they had for a brand. Not only consumers, even non-consumers and your rivals will attack you,” says Ramanujam Sridhar, Founder CEO of Brand-Comm, a Madison World company. 

This is especially true when the issue affects the customers’ health and safety, or women, children and elderly. Not managing a PR crisis properly can have a long-term impact on your brand. Brands are supposed to deal with such issues quickly with utmost care and compassion. Air India missed the bus but it has to work fast on its communication strategy to prevent further damage, brand experts advise. 

Assess the situation

Experts advise that the leaders need to gather a full picture of the brand crisis. They must speak to employees who may be able to shed light on the situation and understand what actually happened and how the press and general public are interpreting it.

Media monitoring tools can help to gather a quick overview of how the public is responding on social media. 

“Only customer feedback and satisfaction is not enough. You have to take entire netizens into account who may not be your customers,” Sridhar says. 

This exercise is crucial for the carrier whose revenues grew 64% in fiscal 2022, roughly Rs 20,000 crore, but net loss swells by a third to Rs 9,500 crore. 

Quick crisis management 

While the incidents were unprecedented, the way they were handled by the crew and the management, brought further bad name to the airline, market experts believe. 

Sridhar recalls how Nestle brand took a beating a few years ago due to a controversy related to Maggie. “Their response took time as Nestle was headquartered in Switzerland. It is unclear why Air India couldn’t quickly resolve the crisis,” he wonders.

Nevertheless, this incident has laid bare the problem. Air India needs to fix it immediately, says Sridhar, adding, “Brands need to deploy PR and communication exercises quickly. This can happen if the communication team has direct access to top management.”

Air India has hired Ronit Baugh as lead corporate communication this week only. Baugh, a seasoned communication professional who has earlier served Jet Airways and Vistara, is expected to turn the tide in the company’s favour. 

e4m got in touch with Baugh to understand the company’s strategy. His response is awaited.

Lakshmipathy Bhat, Marketing Communications Professional, however, feels that it will take a lot more than mere fixing communications strategy to overcome this perceived disaster for Air India. 

“It’s going to take a lot more than mere communications to overcome this perceived disaster for Air India. Already puns are flying thick as response, ‘urine trouble’ for one. Wonder if crisis communication training can prepare anyone for such,” Bhat writes in a LinkedIn post. 

Enhance customer experience 

Single-minded focus on enhancing and managing customer experience-that is the only thing that builds real brand value. There are no quick-fixes or shortcuts that work, says Sinha. 

“With a renewed focus on improving quality of product and service and an effective PR strategy, the brand will put the crisis behind it sooner rather than later,” says Sinha, adding that such an incident has done more damage to the image of the Indian fliers than the airline. 

Experts also call for a re-look at the alcohol serving policy for the business class. “While international airlines often serve limited liquors to economy class fliers, they are liberal for business class. There must be some limit for business class as well,” Sridhar says. 

According to Lloyd Mathias, Independent Director & Seasoned Marketer, “When a clear fault is established, a sincere apology works best. Air India Chairman N Chandrasekaran has done so unequivocally. Now, the AI team will need to review its processes to ensure that the delay in reporting the incident and action against the erring passenger is fixed. They will have to work at ensuring no such incidents recur while trying to win back passenger confidence.”

Mathias further noted, “Airlines in general need to be sensitive when handling passenger issues on-air, on-ground and in any part of the customer journey and must always resolve issues with sincerity and compassion.”

Fixing Accountability 

It should be very clear that at the time of crisis who will manage the press, keep the executive team informed, serve as liaison to other key stakeholders, and record every detail, action taken, external response, and resolution, brand experts insist. 

“If the brand doesn’t have a set protocol for potential crisis management and accountability, it risks losing its customer base and even potential customers”, Sridhar says. 

People have short memories, so the Air India controversy will be forgotten as soon as a fresh controversy comes, Sridhar points out. 


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