Last Saturday, 18-year-old Filipina Arjean Marie Belco was not allowed to board her onward flight at Kuala Lumpur airport while en route to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day. KLM Airlines personnel said she appeared “not ready to travel”, even though she had a folder with full documentation supporting her trip to Brazil.
The sponsor of Belco's trip, GoodX.org, posted a letter of complaint to the airline on Facebook, saying the case "could be perceived as a possible case of discrimination based on appearance, gender, ethnicity, nationality, age or social status".
Filipinos are known for their 'Pinoy' pride. The hopes and aspirations of the nation are focused on individuals who represent the nation on the international stage.
An advertising veteran based in Manila, who did not wish to be named, said that as the Philippines is still a comparatively young nation, the opportunity to shine is important.
“Something seemingly derogatory is not so easily laughed off when as a nation you are still endeavouring to make a greater and more positive impression in the wider world,” the source said. “Put simply, it hurts more.”
Another marketing executive who asked not to be named said the impact of this incident was less than in previous ones, such as the reactions to ads for Bayo and EQ Diapers. An annual speech by the Philippines president may have reduced the public attention given to the incident.
However, Leah Huang, MD at Ogilvy PR Manila, indicated that the brand damaged itself with its response. "GoodX.org...did all the right things—quickly investigated the situation, responded to all questions, and acted to facilitate a positive resolution," Huang said. "If KLM matched that agility, the story would not have been about a girl stranded for two nights with no support from the airline for food, accommodations or travel. While KLM eventually came out with a statement and got the girl through to her destination, netizens have and continue to express outrage over how Arjean was treated."
The lesson for marketers: Online listening is critical to brand health, perhaps moreso in the Philippines than elsewhere. "This is after all a country that ranks No. 1 worldwide on spending the most share of time on social networking channels, where lack of an immediate response is clear, and word of mouth can influence perception of brand authenticity," Huang said.
BBDO Guerrero CEO Tony Harris agreed that no one should underestimate the speed and scale with which the Filipino population can mobilise online. “Sometimes it can be positive, such as our own ‘It's more fun In The Philippines’ campaign, but it can equally establish a negative online movement,” he added. “This is a nation that loves to comment in social media––to blog, to tweet, to like and unlike. And they will do it very quickly.”
Like so many other social-media crises, the incident also underscores the importance of training for front-line staff in an age where any bad situation can instantly attract global attention.
“Is this corporate racism or sexism? Of course not,” Harris said. “Are they guilty of employing personnel who may not espouse views that the more progressively minded of us would? Quite possibly, though obviously not deliberately.”
Any incident that casts doubts on the brand promise presents an opportunity for an organisation to evaluate whether its frontliners are behaving as true ambassadors, as well as whether its communication responses were optimal, Huang said.
"For example, do certain staff need customer-service training refresher?" she asked. "Is there no next-level issue resolution onsite for checks-and-balances? Can they not belatedly reimburse the expense on accommodations, travel, and food caused by denying travel proven to be unwarranted? Can the company statement be less blanket and more specific to the case? It's not about public relations; it's about doing the right thing. And being true to delivering on the brand promise of a welcoming, positive and memorable experience for the KLM passenger."