Why Tony Fernandes’ election misfire is a sign politics and PR never mix

As the AirAsia CEO's backing of the now-ousted Najib Razak hits him spectacularly in the face, Jacob Puthenparambil argues how playing with politics always leaves brands with more to lose than to gain

Removing a figurative foot out of your mouth in the public’s eye in a difficult task – particularly if that foot is about the size of an AirAsia aeroplane.

The Malaysian airlines boss, Tony Fernandes, found himself the centre of a PR storm after painting one of his low-budget carriers the same shade of blue as the now-ousted Barisan Nasional alongside the party’s campaign slogan.

To cement his endorsement, he also appeared in a video crediting the party for AirAsia’s success.

Unfortunately, as we just saw, the election results played neither in outgoing Prime Minister, Najib Razak, nor Fernades’ favour, and the latter now stands in a very unenviable position.

Amid a flurry of inflammatory headlines, the airline maverick has been forced to rapidly back-pedal on his political stance, blaming the BN party for imposing political pressure on the airline – a pressure Fernandes claims he could not foresee relinquishing its grip.

In a statement, he said: “AirAsia is in a very regulated industry. An industry where almost everything requires the approval of the government, from flights to airport taxes to routes, and so, it is never very easy running an airline, and one must always support the government of the day.”

Although Fernandes has admitted his actions were a case of bad judgement, if I were a shareholder of AirAsia, I would be inclined to ask the board if they were consulted before the boss so fragrantly aligned with a political party.

To me, this is a lesson to any brand or business leader in Asia about the reputational dangers of messing with politics. Frankly, in developing countries, taking an overt political position is one of, if not, the biggest risk to anyone looking to stave off controversy in a fraught climate.

So what can businesses do to protect against this? My advice has always been,

  1. Stick to your values, no matter what. Short term pain is worth it.
  2. If you bend once, you will never recover.
  3. Corruption is bad for business, always.
  4. Engage with government officials, not politicians.

It is perfectly fine to have political leanings personally, and you don’t have to hide them.

But, when it comes to your business, you need to be clear that you have set values, no matter what the reward or pressure, and as a business, you can’t be flexible on these.

One of the best examples of the voice of a business brushing up against the pressure of politics comes from Ratan Tata, the-then chairman, of the Tata Group on the “painful” decision to exit the $2,000 Nano car project in West Bengal  in 2008 due to political interference. 

Two years later, Tata revealed how political corruption then quashed his plans to set up an airline with Singapore Airlines. during the 1990s. However, this time, much to his credit, Tata stuck to his guns and refused to bow to political pressure – this time in the form of a bribe on the table.

He said during the 2010 lecture: “[I] happened to be on a plane and “another industrialist who was sitting next to me said ‘I don’t understand… you people are very stupid… you know the minister wants 15 crores ($3 million)… why don’t you pay it?’ And I just said ‘You can’t understand it… I just want to go to bed at night… knowing that I haven’t got the airline by paying for it.’ And I can tell you I would have been feeling tremendously shameful had we got the airline and we had paid for it.”

More than a decade later, Tata went on to launch the airline, Vistara, with Singapore Airlines in 2013. In 2014, he also launched AirAsia India through a joint venture with the Malaysian company.

Fernandes can learn an easy lesson from Tata’s conduct – should he find himself the same situation again.

Like Tata, when consumers fly Vistara, it’s easier to sleep onboard because they know the airline has not compromised values nor contributed to the cancer of corruption plaguing India. Sadly, I do not feel the same with AirAsia anymore and I doubt other passengers will either. 

In a parallel universe somewhere, there might be a Tony Fernandes, who defied pressure, stood up for what he felt was right, set an example for his team and Malaysians. That Tony would have been my hero. One Mr Tata would have been proud of too.

Jacob Puthenparambil is the co-founder of Singapore-based independent agency Redhill Communications 


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