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Imagine you’re the CEO of a successful multinational corporation, whose name people know all over the world. Then, imagine that two employees who represent the public face of your company are embroiled in a rather large scandal when a photo of them in a “compromising position” leaks out onto the internet. The timing could barely be worse: you’ve just invested a lot of your limited marketing resources in a new campaign that, given what’s just happened, is the perfect ammunition for those skilled in double entendre.You haven’t just got the eyes of employees and shareholders on you. The whole world is watching. What’s your plan?
The natural reaction for most people I’ve asked this of is: “Make the problem go away as fast as possible. Fire the problem employees. Abandon the marketing campaign.” But in the age of social media, is this really the right approach?
Unfortunately for Cathay Pacific chief executive John Slosar, this prickly question is one he’s working out for himself right now. A picture of two of Cathay’s employees — a pilot and a stewardess — on board an aeroplane in a “compromising position” found its way out onto the Internet. And, putting the icing on the cake, Cathay had just begun a big marketing push around the slogan: “Meet the team who go the extra mile to make you feel special.” In the words of a management source within Cathay: “the scope for the slogan and the campaign to be misinterpreted, or ridiculed and lampooned, in light of the cockpit incident, is obvious.”
Slosar’s response: make the problem go away as fast as possible. Quick internal review; get rid of the employees (it’s not clear whether they were fired or they resigned); release statement full of righteous indignation about “inappropriate conduct.” And the marketing campaign? It’s dead in the water. Here’s how Cathay broke the news: “We are thinking of holding the campaign back for a little while because the timing doesn’t suit us at the moment.”
It doesn’t suit you at the moment?! The embarrassment in the statement is palpable. Unsurprisingly, the problem has not gone away. In fact, if anything, it’s the opposite: everything Slosar has done so far to make the publicity stop has done nothing other than fan the flames.
Could Slosar have dealt with the problem differently?
Some of you may have heard of the martial art of jujitsu; one of the principles it teaches is transforming weaknesses into strengths. There’s a delicate art to practicing it; but done right, it can be as powerful as it is counter-intuitive. Instead of trying to make the PR problem go away — which clearly has not worked — Slosar could have instead chosen to run with it and play offence.
Want to see it in practice, under pressure? October 21, 1984: it’s the second presidential debate. President Reagan is being grilled about his age.
Instead of ducking the question, Reagan took the problem and turned it on its head: “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
It’s a fantastic example of jujitsu.
So how could Slosar have done the same?
In the context of his industry, Slosar has wiggle room. Premium airlines like Cathay offer an experience much more akin to the way we perceive air travel used to be: back when flying was an event, rather than riding a bus that just happens to have wings. Because of this, airlines can tolerate risqué and cheeky branding — they can even thrive under it.
Top of the list of companies that have exploited this has to be Virgin. They put double beds on board their planes, and at the time of announcement, a spokesperson encouraged passengers to “enjoy themselves”. And Virgin are far from alone in using such tactics to build brands. Singapore Airline’s “Singapore Girls” were introduced in the 1960s and remain a core part of the airline’s positioning. Air New Zealand did a little jujitsu of its own when it took the boring old safety briefing and featured its staff wearing nothing but body paint.
But possibly the most extreme example has come out of Australia: Unilever’s advertising agency completely fabricated an airline — Lynx Jet — to sell its Lynx (Axe) line of deodorant. The ads were totally over the top: scantily clad in-flight attendants and an on-board spa. And you know what? They didn’t just sell a lot deodorant. Despite the fact that no prices, routes or timetables were published, they had people calling up, trying to book tickets.
Not bad for an imaginary airline!
In the era of social media, what happened to Cathay can happen to any company at any time. So apply jujitsu. Look for ways to turn your weaknesses into strengths. Don’t back away from the “extra mile” marketing campaign. Double down on it instead. Hire the advertising agency that did the Mini campaign to introduce a bit of cheekiness into the Cathay ads. Walk out into a press conference and introduce the campaign with a wry smile on your face.
It’s almost guaranteed that a huge cadre of press will be there, and everyone is going to be talking about it. But they already are, aren’t they? The only difference is, instead of being a victim, Cathay would be taking back control of the conversation that is taking place around their brand.