When you’re fronting to a business audience and your firm has been in the news for the wrong reasons there are several ways to play it.
One is to quietly ignore the issue and hope the audience is too polite to mention it in the Q & A session afterwards.
Given New Zealand audiences tend to be fairly polite, this can be a reasonably safe option.
The trouble with this approach is that as the chief executive of the firm concerned, you’re going to know that everyone is sitting there thinking about those embarrassing news items.
There is the feeling that at any minute now newscaster Hilary Barry is going to pop up and say "and we’re now crossing live to our reporter who is with that elephant in the room… ”
The second approach, a sort of halfway house, is to make a few slightly embarrassed “aw shucks” sort of jokes about the matter – preferably pretty early in the piece – and then move on.
Again, there’s a good chance of getting away with this.
Politicians who have been in the media for some embarrassment or other use this technique a lot, and it often works for them. It gets them a quote in the next day’s news and it makes them look a “good sort” who can make – and, the hope is, take – a joke against themselves.
It might work for some businesses, too, but normally not.
Like it or not, business clients generally hold firms to a higher and certainly more specific standard of service than we normally hold elected representatives to.
There are two other options, both involving a more explicit acknowledgement of any issue.
One is outright denial and counter-attack.
Again, this is something a politician would do, probably after the self-deprecating joke mentioned above.
That doesn’t work for most business chief executives, though.
A politician can work on the principle that at least a third of the audience will think he is wrong no matter what he says and up to another third are already onside, and therefore deliver a message aimed at winning over a plurality of the undecided without losing the ones already on the team.
A business CEO has no such luxury. “The customer is always right – even when the customer is wrong” is burned into the cognitive synapses.
That leaves the final option, which also involves explicitly acknowledging the issue but front footing it without excuses.
Jetstar boss took it on chin
Jetstar boss David Hall turned up to speak at a Wellington Employers Chamber of Commerce breakfast this week and pretty much took the issue of Jetstar’s somewhat chequered publicity over recent months on the chin.
After a 20-minute presentation on what the company does, and what its plans are for the future, he then spent several minutes on what he calls “getting into the papers for the wrong reasons”.
Jetstar’s main publicity over the past year has involved cancelled or delayed flights, and, in one recent case, a staffer asking a customer if she could fly given her – according to the Jetstar staffer – apparent pregnancy.
The customer was very much not pregnant and went public.
“We got off to a rough start with you and we tried to do too much too soon,” he told the audience.
“We do get into the papers from the wrong reasons; we do occasionally get things wrong, we do occasionally… ” he pauses, as if searching for an example " … ask inappropriate questions.”
The timing, the delivery, gets a titter from the audience.
Having got them on side, he goes on to deliver a partial defence, partial mea culpa.
“We do not always get it right, I accept that, but of the 1.6 million we carry each year the vast majority travel safety and on time. We have a cancelation rate of less than 1% and we do not do commercial cancellations,” he says, in reference to the industry practice of last-minute cancellation of flights which do not have the numbers to make them profitable.
“But journalists and editors tell me good news doesn’t sell papers. Aviation sells papers. And people in the Australian and New Zealand region have a fascination with aviation.”
The rest of the talk goes over well. The questions are mostly friendly and no-one uses the term “jet-starred” as a descriptive verb coined by Wellington columnist Dave Armstrong recently and given wider publicity by blogger David Farrar.
The rest of the talk is on Jetstar’s plans and its impact on the domestic aviation market: flights last year were up 30% but Air New Zealand were flat, suggesting the low-cost approach is growing the market, Mr Hall says.
In this for the long haul
“We’re a challenger brand and we’re in this for the long haul,” he says, telling the audience a mix of scale and attention to costs is keeping the airfares down.
“When your air fare is lower than perhaps your taxi ride to the airport”, he begins at one point, getting a laugh, “or lower than the cost of parking at the airport … ” which gets an even bigger laugh " … it changes the market.”
The change goes beyond airfares, he says. One questioner asks if Jetstar has looked at teaming up with other firms in the travel chain to provide a one-stop service involving taxis, hotels, tourism packages as well as the air travel.
Mr Hall says not as such, and adds that the cheaper air fares has an impact on customer behaviour beyond the flight part of travel.
“It means people have more to spend on other things when they get to where they’re going, right? But what seems to happen is that having got a cheaper air fare they also look for other aspects of the trip to be cheaper.”
Declaration: Rob Hosking has never flown Jetstar and would rather drive than fly anyway.