'Stealing Thunder': Why Air NZ should have got ahead of Saudi crisis

Air New Zealand should have been more proactive in dealing with the Saudi Navy crisis writes Associate Professor Daniel Laufer.

Last month Air New Zealand was heavily criticised in the media for the company’s maintenance work for the Saudi Navy.

Air New Zealand was the target of public outrage because the company was viewed as helping the Saudi Navy with its operations.These operations included a naval blockade of Yemen which has contributed to a humanitarian disaster in that country.

Even the New Zealand Government, Air New Zealand’s majority shareholder, was highly critical of the company.

Proactively disclosing information about a crisis is called stealing thunder.

There are many reasons an organisation should adopt this communication strategy.

Unfortunately, many do not, because of the misguided belief that information about a crisis can be kept secret.

But in an age of whistle-blowers, social media and citizen journalism, the likelihood that information about a crisis will leak out to the public is very high.

Stealing thunder can also be an effective strategy for individuals, as well as organisations. People who can particularly benefit from the strategy are corporate executives and politicians.

A good example of a corporate executive who used the strategy was Jeff Bezos, the chairman of Amazon.

In February 2019, Bezos became the target of blackmail by a tabloid newspaper over an extramarital affair.

In order to steal thunder, Bezos revealed the incident to the public through social media before it could be reported on by the tabloid newspaper attempting to extort him.

As a result, the subsequent media coverage was more favourable towards him. Instead of focusing on details of the extramarital affair, the primary focus of the coverage was on the tabloid newspaper’s unethical behaviour.

This is a great example of how stealing thunder can help an individual shape the narrative around a crisis.

What are the reasons stealing thunder is so useful to an organisation during a crisis?

First, the media expects organisations to communicate information in a biased manner that portrays themselves in a positive light. By stealing thunder, organisations are disclosing negative information about themselves which runs counter to these expectations. As a result, such organisations are seen as more credible.

Second, the crisis is then seen as less serious.

This is because the public is more likely to believe that an organisation would not voluntarily self-disclose very damaging information about itself unless it was confident in its ability to handle the crisis.

Finally, when an organisation steals thunder, it is able to frame a crisis more positively. This is because its version of events is the first to be disclosed.

Being the first to tell a story increases the likelihood that the news reports will be more favourable for the organisation during a crisis.Imagine if the tabloid newspaper was the first to disclose Bezos’ extramarital affair.

The focus of the media coverage would have been on the details of the affair, as opposed to the extortion.

By stealing thunder, Bezos changed the narrative and was perceived by many in the public as a victim.

The benefits of stealing thunder for organisations and individuals are significant, and they should seriously consider using this communication strategy.

Had Air New Zealand been to self-disclose its maintenance contract with the Saudi Navy, the damage to its reputation would have been significantly reduced.

Imagine if the company’s CEO, who is relatively new in the role, announced that he discovered the contract through an internal review of the company’s operations.

He could have mentioned publicly that the contract was signed during the time of his predecessor, and that he would be changing the company’s policies and procedures to prevent these types of contracts from being signed in the future.

This type of proactive communication from Air New Zealand would have generated a more sympathetic response from the media when compared with the negative coverage resulting from the investigative report by TVNZ which uncovered the contract.

Dr Daniel Laufer is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, and an expert in Crisis Management. He has previously provided commentary on best practices in Crisis Management for the Wall Street Journal in the US. In this monthly column for Stuff, Laufer discusses issues in Crisis Management.

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