Thai Airways paints over its logo
Is it bad PR when an airline tries to protect its brand after an accident?
September 11, 2013 5:48 by Muhammad Aldalou
On Sunday, September 8, 14 people were injured while evacuating a Thai Airways Airbus 330-300 that skidded off the runway while landing at Bangkok’s main airport. The flight from Guangzhou, China, was carrying 288 passengers and 14 crew members.
“After touchdown at Suvarnabhumi Airport, the landing gear malfunctioned and caused the aircraft to skid off the runway,” says Sorajak Kasemsuvan, president of Thai Airways. “Sparks were noticed from the vicinity of the right landing gear near the engine; the matter is under investigation.”
While you would expect the media attention to focus on what caused the landing gear to malfunction, how 14 of its passengers came to be injured during evacuation, or simply the fact that all passengers survived – something more unusual caught their eye.
After the incident, the airline’s second priority (after evacuating passengers) was to protect its image; workers on a crane blacked out the Thai Airways logo on the tail and body.
A Thai Airways official, Smud Poom-on, told The Associated Press that blurring the logo after an accident was a Star Alliance recommendation, known as the ‘crisis communication rule’, aimed at protecting the image of both the airline and members of the aviation alliance.
As odd as it seems, this move is not entirely unheard of in the aviation industry. Back in February 2013, Italy’s flagship airline, Alitalia, similarly covered its markings with white paint, when an aircraft veered off the runway at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, injuring 16 people.
Speaking to UK newspaper, The Daily Telegraph at the time, Giancarlo Schisano, the airline’s director of operations, described it as “routine practice” in the industry, adding that blocking out a carrier’s livery is a normal way of protecting a company’s reputation.
However, while Thai Airways’ cover-up was done to ward off negative publicity and protect its image, one could argue that it has had the opposite effect. What would, arguably, be considered as a relatively minor accident has transformed into a major news story covered by international media.
“We’ve all heard the saying that you are more likely to be hit by a bus or die crossing the road than by a plane crash,” says Penny Couchman, group director at Dubai-based da Vinci Marketing.
“But, at the same time, we also accept that it can happen. And because we assume that airlines take safety incredibly seriously, we can forgive an airline when a plane does come down, providing that it adheres to corporate governance and is transparent with the findings,” she explains.
Couchman says that the battery issue with the Boeing Dreamliner is a perfect example of a company that is being open about its problems and the actions it is taking to reassure customers. In turn, Boeing ensured that the brand reputation only suffers a short-term knock.
She adds: “Conversely, when a brand loses trust with its customers, nothing that is said will be believed. And Thai Airways has effectively created a platform of lies, from which it now hopes to explain the crash.”
Seong Jin Ki, planning director at Cheil MENA, says that Thai Airways’ decision to paint over the logo assumes that a brand is just that – a logo.
“In today’s environment, a brand is defined as everything you see, think, touch and feel about a company. It is not the name of the company or a logo on the wing of a plane, but the emotional and cognitive connection between an organisation and its customers. This is dictated by its actions and, here, its actions are dishonest, as though it is covering up more than just a logo. Considering that the essence of a successful corporate brand is trust and with it comes transparency, painting over the logo has done more to damage the brand than the original crash itself,” she adds.