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Urban Chat - Garuda Indonesia: Kneejerk reaction versus crisis management

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, July 19, 2019  /  02:39 pm
Urban Chat - Garuda Indonesia: Kneejerk reaction versus crisis management

A Garuda Indonesia airplane. (Shutterstock.com/e X p o s e)

Unless you have been living under the rock, you know about the juicy drama that has engulfed flag carrier Garuda Indonesia this week. 

First, a vlog showing a handwritten menu for business class went viral, which Garuda downplayed as a personal note from a flight attendant that was never meant for passengers.

The vlogger published a longer video that shows the offending sheet was handed out to other business class passengers. A memo that was leaked afterward indicated that Garuda was prepared to ban passengers that documented anything while on board its aircraft.

Drawing fresh criticism, Garuda claimed the memo was not finalized and it only planned to suggest passengers that passengers avoid documenting their travels. On the side, however, the Garuda employees union (Sekarga) filed a defamation suit against the vlogger. 

As the controversy heightened, Garuda eventually revoked the "suggestions". Sekarga was reportedly willing to rescind the legal suit if the vlogger showed remorse.

All of this happened in the span of two to three days.

Kneejerk reactions came at each and every turn. Garuda Indonesia was just reacting, and reacting very poorly for a company that is decades old, regarded as one of the country's key assets and a member of the SkyTeam alliance. Surely featuring a well-oiled PR machine was one of the requirements to join such a prestigious alliance, was it not?

First things first. There are several possible reasons as to why there was a lack of printed menus on the Sydney-Denpasar flight. Perhaps the airline had just changed menus and the new cards were still, as the flight attendant claimed, in printing. Perhaps the local catering service Garuda used somehow did not come through at the last minute and the airline had to source meals elsewhere, without having the opportunity to print up revised menus. Whatever the real story was, this was an oversight that needed its own investigation and fixing.

When the operational issue met the paying customer, it became a service issue. To her credit the flight attendant instantly offered an apology, a fact acknowledged by the vlogger all along. Unless internal inquiries can establish that the cabin crew was directly responsible for the missing printed menu cards, it can be said that it did its best thousands of feet above the ground with the "cards" they were dealt with.

When the issue hit the news cycle, it became a public communications problem. At this point none of the real back story would matter anymore. Garuda Indonesia should have followed the example set by its flight attendant by humbly owning up to the issue, promptly apologizing for it and, being the big company the government prides it to be, gradually moving the conversation to more important issues.

The public would have mocked the airline for another day or two, but they would have moved on to the next breaking news. Instead, Garuda reacted like a moody teenager who got caught cheating, and so it panicked by flip-flopping from one excuse to another. The defamation suit, even if it was genuinely filed by Sekarga sans Garuda management interference, only worsened the drama that could have been nipped in the bud.

Silly. Unnecessary. Inefficient. Ineffective. Silly.

A good public relations team needs more than just sweet smiles and helpful attitudes, strengths that once won Garuda the World's Best Cabin Crew award. A functioning public relations group should stick to a crisis management protocol that covers all channels of corporate information including social media. Responses must be swift yet calculated, measured and aimed toward closure. Acting, not reacting, is key.

Does it mean Garuda needs to permanently employ a team of swashbuckling PR people?

A capable internal team is a must, but first hire a professional firm to shape campaigns, develop protocols, maneuver the changing media landscape and manage crises. Most multinational companies have long been doing this. Many multinational companies even have their internal spokesperson professionally trained in managing media, despite keeping an outside firm at hand. 

State-owned enterprises in Indonesia have long been trapped between booking profits and serving with a focus on national pride, which has often resulted in them forgetting to best serve their customers. Half the blame goes to the Indonesian government, including this administration, which has maintained that trap.

But as commercial air travel falls into the service category, if Garuda were to pursue its lofty international ambitions, then relying on smiling cabin crew and national pride wouldn't cut it anymore – serious overhaul in operations and marketing, including PR management, are in order. 

Cathay Pacific, once the region's best airline before Singapore Airlines' steady discipline propelled it to international stardom, was realistic enough to carry out reforms in recent years after losing its luster. Both Cathay and Singapore Airlines aren't private corporations. Is Garuda Indonesia up to taking on similar reforms? When Jokowi said he would go all out in his second term, did that include overhauling our state-owned enterprises, whose boards of directors these days only have to answer to a couple of Cabinet ministers?

“Arrive in Better Shape” was once Cathay Pacific's proud tagline. From the eyes of this frequent flyer scheduled to board its flight one of these days, Garuda Indonesia first needs to fly in better shape.

Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.