SpiceJet hits turbulence… in crisis management

It’s clear that SpiceJet, India’s budget airline brand, is going through a humongous reputational crisis caused by relentless, back-to-back issues in its planes/flights. From what I recall, the issues started in December 2021 and then have been almost a consistent fixture in news, particularly in May and July 2022.

Today (July 13, 2022), we see the dubious achievement of the page 1 news in The Times of India proclaiming, “SpiceJet suffers 9th malfunction in just 24 days” and page 5 has a full-page advertisement by SpiceJet that counterintuitively proclaims, “flying with the highest occupancy in India”.

Considering the fact that this ‘highest occupancy’ proclamation has also made it to the news sections of assorted media today, it is apparent that this is SpiceJet’s way of fighting back to regain its reputation.

This, despite a Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) notice to the airline on July 6, 2022 for failing “to establish safe, efficient and reliable air services”. The notice adds, “poor internal safety oversight and inadequate maintenance actions as most of the incidents are related to either component failure or system-related failure (resulting) in degradation of the safety margins”.

There is no doubt whatsoever that SpiceJet has a massive product, service, and reputational crisis at hand – this is not a PR crisis. But the way the brand has started to address the crisis makes it seems like it considers this merely a PR crisis.

A PR crisis occurs when people are bad-mouthing or vocally and visibly losing trust in your brand.

SpiceJet’s crisis stems from a series of actual product and service-related issues. Those issues, given their alarming regularity, have led people to talk about avoiding SpiceJet, on social media… understandably so. The reason is obvious – given the frequency of issues surrounding aircraft flight-worthiness, maintenance, and the resultant safety, it is natural for people to fear flying SpiceJet.

But that fear (that manifests itself on social media) is the result of product and service-related issues – the underlying cause of the reputational crisis is what needs addressing in a crisis management plan.

I assume SpiceJet has solid, proven numbers when it proclaims that they have the highest occupancy in India for 7 consecutive years. But that impressive data-point is—and will be—being seen alongside today’s latest snag (thankfully, it was detected before the take-off and passengers were ferried in another plane), the series of headlines that call out the many issues of the recent past, and most importantly, in the background of the harshly-worded DCGA notice.

The press announcement and multi-paper advertisements will not be seen in isolation. They exist in a universe where the news contradicts the self-celebratory data-point and gesture. Therein lies the problem with SpiceJet’s crisis management.

The action is akin to closing one’s eyes and ears and continuing to shout contradictory statements when the world around that person is saying something else.

The first rule in crisis management is: “Read. The. Room.” (ironically, the last sentence of my post from yesterday too… that wasn’t about a crisis at all!)

If SpiceJet ‘read the room’, the first point to consider is this: “How do we assuage people that we are doing everything to win their trust back?”.

That ‘doing everything’ would naturally lead to SpiceJet communicating the following on priority:
1. What is the airline’s response to DGCA’s damning notice?
2. What is the series of steps that are being taken to address aircraft-related issues?
3. What is the action around maintenance-related issues?
4. What are some of the timely, prudent actions taken by cabin crew, pilots, and other maintenance staff at SpiceJet that averted larger crises during the recently reported incidents? This puts the focus back on smart individuals employed by SpiceJet – machines and processes don’t earn trust as easily as people do.

But, instead of addressing the heart of the matter first, the brand seems to be incongruously rubbing in a celebratory note.

To be fair, I do understand why brands fear addressing the nub of a crisis – it may seem like they are acknowledging that they have a problem. The usual reasoning is: “Why make it official by talking about it ourselves, even if we are talking only about remedial actions?”.

In this case, SpiceJet does obviously have a problem. And closing its eyes will not make the problem go away, particularly after it has reached the level it is at right now and with the DGCA breathing down its neck. In a way, this is an even more awkward situation to be in – SpiceJet is the only one with its eyes closed in the crowded room, and everyone—with their eyes fully open—is staring at it. This leads to the ‘highest load factor’ news being opened with a line that adds context:

“Despite the ongoing safety issues of its fleet of aircraft which resulted in the DGCA show cause notice, SpiceJet on Tuesday claimed that it has flown with the highest load for a record seven years.”

Even if SpiceJet’s claim is true, it is timed incredibly poorly. This is the kind of data point that needs to be intelligently used after some amount of fire-fighting so that people can contextually consider it as part of its setting right plan to get back to the previous high.

Right now, it simply looks like desperate damage control, which it sure is.

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