PR gaffes compound Air Zimbabwe's many problems

Sep 20, 2011

Just when you think things can't get any worse for Air Zimbabwe, they do. Unfortunately for the 'national carrier,' their problems can no longer be solved just be an injection of money to pay off dead and invest in new planes. The airline's reputation is in tatters and the shareholding, board and management seem in panic mode, which just makes them commit even more gaffes.

It's not just about an injection of external funds and new planes any more.

This was pitifully made clear when after being grounded since July, Air Zimbabwe last week announced that it had scrapped together enough money to take to the skies again. US$2,8 million was reportedly sourced from the government to pay some of the salary and other backlogs, but even then, staff had still not received their July and August salaries. This means the money is just another temporary band-aid, with most of the wound still exposed and the underlying cause untreated.

But in a particularly clear and stinging repudiation by its market, no customer turned up for the airline's first post-strike flight!

Acting chief executive officer Innocent Mavhunga bravely tried to put the best face on a bad situation. He is reported to have said the airline faced challenges similar to ''re-entering the market'' and that it would take over six months to restore customer confidence.

This is probably largely true, except that even the six months to restore customer confidence might be wildly optimistic, since it would entail the airline flying continually and doing everything else right for that period, which seems unlikely given all its many still unresolved issues.

But here's the thing. In addition to all the other derisive things said about them, many people will now only remember Air Zimbabwe as the carrier that prepared a flight, only to have no one turn up for it because of lack of confidence. That memory will exist in the minds of many people for a long time, no matter how Air Zimbabwe may shape up in the near future.

What this suggests is that in addition to all its deep structural problems, Air Zimbabwe also has serious strategy and public relations deficits. After receiving the money they needed to solve their immediate problems and get ready to fly again, perhaps it would have been best to somehow quietly test the customer sentiment before announcing actual flight schedules? Hopefully through their allied travel agents and other means they have the wherewithal to gauge whether the market would jump with joy at their resuming flights, or react with a massive 'who cares,' as appears to have been the case.

When Mavhunga correctly says it will take some time (and unusual customer care effort which it remains to be seen if it is capable of) for confidence to be restored in Air Zimbabwe, it sounded like an afterthought that was only realized when they scheduled a plan for flight and no one turned up. Yet it would have been so much better to avoid the embarrassment of another round of massive bad international publicity over the unprecedented customer ''boycott.''

As if this wasn't bad enough, when the airline finally was able on the weekend to round up 16 passengers for its flight from Harare to Victoria Falls, it had to make the return flight with just one customer! Not only is this compounding the problems of the airline's image, it means that right from its return from the two month 'holiday,' it is adding to its losses rather than reducing them.

Perhaps it would have been better to wait a week or two before flying, using that time to do some serious public relations work and build up bookings?  

The reputational knock of these latest embarrassments may be harder to erase from the minds of a lot of people than some of the airline's other, structural problems. There are going to be jokes about this all over the world for years, making the company's public confidence restoration task even more difficult. Being the butt of rude jokes can be very difficult to shake off.

There clearly was failure to foresee or gauge the extent to which the flying public had become disillusioned with Air Zimbabwe. That is a new problem to add to its many others.

It is somewhat similar to the infamous incident in July in which Air Zimbabwe offered its Harare to Bulawayo customers a bus ride to their destination because the airline suddenly couldn't fly them due to 'operational challenges.'

In that case a spokesperson said, ''The first option was to be booked in a bus that was supposed to leave Harare on Monday afternoon, the second one being to be re-booked for a Wednesday flight, while the last one was to have the passengers' money refunded.''

In retrospect the airline would have been better of not offering customers the first option, even if it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The customers were already angry and disgusted anyway, so refunding them or offering to book them on a flight two days later would not have made the situation much worse. Instead, the bus option that was made in good faith by Air Zimbabwe was interpreted as a terrible insult, humiliation and provocation by the customers. After all, they could have just gone to catch one of the many available buses to Bulawayo on their own, or even just stood on the side of the road flagging down private cars!

The argument must have been that at least Air Zimbabwe was showing concern to get passengers to their destination, even if by road instead of by air. But the public ridicule that followed the publicizing of the bus option suggests that rather than being perceived as a gesture of caring and responsibility for its customers, the overwhelming reaction was to just emphasize an airline that was quite literally 'grounded,' and so much so that they were reduced to offering a road transport service instead of air flight! This will be good for bar room jokes for many years, to Air Zimbabwe's great detriment.

Air Zimbabwe only learned that bitter lesson after making the offer. It will take time for the airline to get over its reputation as the airline that buses its customers to their destination, rather than flying them there. That expensive lesson in brand maintenance (even when the brand is in free fall) should have been applied to last week's resumption of flights, to avoid even more scorn and ridicule.

The word 'strategic' is now used so often and so loosely in Zimbabwe business circles that it has lost much of its value. 'Strategic this or strategic that' has become almost a way to show off one's knowledge of business jargon, as in 'our company will be holding a strategic retreat this weekend' to refer to what is no more than a company picnic.

But if there is one thing that Air Zimbabwe needs as much as a source of capital, perhaps it is 'strategic thinking' in the truest sense of the term, to try to stop the company's painful-to-watch, slow motion public suicide.

The first lessons of Air Zimbabwe's proposed strategic retreat:

* Since you say you are an airline, people expect you to fly them to Bulawayo, not to transport them by road! If you can't fly them, bite the bullet and find some way to soothe them, but don't offer them a bus-if they choose to get to Bulawayo that way, let them do that on their own!

* When your troubles have played out in the media and in public every day, don't expect that when you temporarily plug a small whole in your multi-leaking fuselage, customers will eagerly come back to you in droves. Be clever and 'strategic' by testing the waters and doing things gradually to avoid embarrassment.

* Air Zimbabwe is now known as a revolving door for chief executives. If you cannot hire CEOs it is hardly surprising, although it is hard to believe that there are no candidates for the perceived 'prestige' of being its boss, even in its pitiful state. There is always someone who believes his business brilliance will somehow overcome what are essentially political constraints.

Which is a background to saying, Air Zimbabwe, at this time of crisis, you need a confirmed CEO, not an acting one! The poor acting chap already has to deal with the problem of a board chairman who publicly plays the role one would expect of the CEO. Having someone in a tentative, acting capacity at such a crucial time is unfair to the poor fellow and detrimental to the airline.

Either confirm the acting Mavhunga fellow, or do him and the airline a favor by quickly giving the CEO position with its full related powers to somebody else, pronto! Perhaps the current board chairman, who appears to have little regard for the acting CEO, if his management-interfering antics are any sign, might want to compete for the substantive CEO position himself.

* That board chairman, Jonathan Kadzura, recently poured his frustrations out to the Financial Gazette and The Herald (those interviews to be interrogated here separately soon) about Air Zimbabwe's problems, in particular seeking to explain and defend his board's role in addressing them. He explained himself well and clearly in both interviews, for which both newspapers must be commended. Kadzura too must also be given a pat on the back for finally losing his fear of his political masters to speak openly, directly and frankly to Zimbabweans on a matter of public concern.

However, his attacks on the airline's 'parent ministry' for what he feels was not doing their fair share to end the company's woes, while entirely understandable, also added to the sense of chaos in the overall running of Air Zimbabwe. It strengthened the impression of important parts of the company's governing structure that are working at cross purposes, rather than together.

The result is that no matter who is 'right' or 'wrong,' the confusion only further damages the airline's already badly battered public image. On the one hand some of the airlines' employees seem bent on the airline committing suicide, on the other hand others of its stakeholders seem to want to murder it.

* Last point for the strategic workshop: For goodness sake, Air Zimbabwe, find some money to higher a reputable public relations professional, and then don't make a single move which could boomerang on your already tattered and torn reputation without his or her input!

Finally, a certain cynic who wishes to remain anonymous wants to know: was the sudden, mysterious appearance of $2.9 million last week, after the airline had been grounded for two months on account of no money for salary and other arrears, have anything to do with president Robert Mugabe and his entourage needing a plane available for their trip to the current UN talkshop in New York???! After all, even when it has not always served Zimbabwe well as the 'national carrier,' some wags claim that it has always faithfully made sure it did well as the 'presidential carrier!'

Poor, poor, pitiful Air Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Review


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