As someone personally involved at the Air New Zealand cabin crew dispute I can tell you it’s been pretty nasty for everyone involved. But what it’s really brought home for everyone has been the seamless (and slightly creepy) way the airline has used its internal communications to reinforce the brand cult of Air New Zealand.
Don’t get me wrong, I know every large business runs internal PR, it’s part of getting their staff on side so they do their best for the business. But usually it’s no more than a staff newsletter and some hokey team-building once a year.
Air New Zealand takes it to a whole new level. The airline’s 11,000 staff who, like in some weird nation within a nation, are encouraged to think of themselves as “Air New Zealanders”, are emailed weekly CEO messages as well as good news stories about the company and media releases. They run regular training sessions with Orwellian titles like “realise your potential” in which staff are encouraged to identify themselves and their futures in terms of the Air New Zealand brand and they provide staff with a whole separate password coded online world called the korunet with its own forums and newsfeeds. A world that is heavily moderated and censored of course.
Staff are also encouraged to spend their spare time selling the brand to family and friends, to take part in company-organised charity events and to “share their New Zealand” with the company for outside PR purposes. Some of the staff I know have spent countless hours working for free at Air New Zealand events out of a strange mixture of loyalty, fear and ultimately hollow promises of getting ahead.
A large part of this strategy is the creation of Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe as a benevolent messiah figure. He hardly ever gets involved in the airline’s constant industrial disputes and he works the occasional shift with staff to let “his people” know that they are “all Air New Zealanders”.
That’s all very well but what happens when “Air New Zealanders”, such as the Zeal 320 crew, decide to break the faith by asking to be treated equally with other “Air New Zealanders”?
Here’s an internal communication to all Air NZ staff in which Fyfe comments about the dispute:
I have found this week particularly challenging I love Air New Zealand, the brand, the people and what we mean to the country. Therefore, I have found it especially difficult to see the Zeal crew go to such lengths to project themselves as unprofessional, denigrate the uniform, our brand, the koru and the professional standards of the airline.
We want people to step on board our aircraft and have confidence in the crew who they are trusting to get them to their destination safely. Our passengers want to see professionalism, confidence and maturity, and people who are able to show leadership and display the characteristics I describe above in a time of crisis.
Yet some set out this week to destroy that confidence and unfortunately customer confidence is not something you can turn on and off like a tap. It is something that takes a long time to build, can be lost in a flash, and takes a long time to rebuild again. It upsets me that people can be so disrespectful of something that many of you have spent decades creating and I have certainly put my heart and soul into in my six years with Air New Zealand.
So we have been faced with some tough leadership choices this week. I have received emails from a number of you questioning why we are been so tolerant of this behaviour. Here is one such email;
‘Rob, you have had more than 10,000 people bust a gut to resurrect Air New Zealand from the ashes of the demise of Ansett. These people in Zeal are showing complete disrespect not only to these people but the generations they follow who worked tirelessly to build an airline that all New Zealanders can be proud of… Imagine what foreigners must think when they step on a plane this week!!! You and Bruce and the team must be thinking hard about whether the Zeal crew are really fit to be part of the culture you have built, especially when there are so many New Zealanders desperate to wear the uniform and represent the Koru with pride.’
Despite the behaviour of these Zeal crew I still believe that deep down they want to work on Air New Zealand services, want to do a good job and want to convey a professional image, but that the people behind these antics, have lost sight of the â€˜bigger picture’.
When I read this I was reminded of the behaviour of Exclusive Brethren leaders encouraging church members to shun those they feel have lost the faith. In fact it seems more like a decree of excommunication than a CEO statement about a pay dispute.
It’s been noticable at the airport how it has had a similar effect, with some other Air New Zealand staff abusing their colleagues for betraying the brand. Ironically some of these staff are likely to have their jobs taken from them by cheaper Zeal employees if the company wins this dispute.
If this kind of deep-immersion, leader as messiah stuff was being undertaken for religious or political reasons it is likely Air New Zealand would be on some kind of security watchlist. But it’s not. It’s being done to make money. So instead we see Rob celebrated on the cover of North and South (whose parent company ACP also publish the Air NZ in flight magazine, KiaOra), winning PR awards and flying to China with Prime Minister John Key.
And we do see it because it’s all emailed to every staff member to constantly remind them of how great Air New Zealand is.
Disclaimer: The author of this guest post is involved in the industrial dispute at Zeal 320.