Racheal Lee
May 22, 2013

Media attack seen having minimal impact on AirAsia

KUALA LUMPUR - AirAsia has come under attack by Malay daily Utusan Malaysia after the low-cost carrier's CEO criticised the newspaper as 'racist', but the impact on the airline's brand image and bottom line are expected to be minimal, according to industry experts.

Media attack seen having minimal impact on AirAsia

Azran Osman Rani, CEO at AirAsia X, responded last week to the newspaper's headline on 7 May, Apa lagi Cina mau?" ("What more do the Chinese want?") , which referred to the country's elections via Facebook and Twitter with the statement: "I am Malaysian. I am anti-racism. I am disgusted by Utusan's editorial stance". 

Utusan is owned by political party UMNO.

The attacks on Azran and AirAsia started with a column written by the paper's editors under the pseudonum ‘Awang Selamat’, which suggested that advertisements from AirAsia should be rejected until Azran apologised. The editorial also said that AirAsia's advertisements are “cheaper than advertisements of traditional supplement and hair treatment”.

Ironically, today's Utusan homepage features an ad banner from AirAsia, at least when we accessed it (see below).

The attack escalated when Utusan Malaysia dedicated a full page to criticising AirAsia for refusing to allow a mother and her baby to board as AirAsia flight at Ho Chi Minh airport last Saturday. The baby had been diagnosed by a doctor with chicken pox, and AirAsia has explained that it followed international guidelines in the case.

Rival Malaysian Airlines (MAS) later flew the duo to Malaysia, citing a diagnosis from another doctor that the baby could be taken on board the aircraft, as she had recovered from the disease.

Dinesh Sandhu, regional director of strategic planning & integrated media at Hakuhodo Communications Asia, said that while these attacks are politically motivated, the impact is expected to minimal as Azran’s remark is personal statement and is also general sentiment of the country.

“Many people said the same thing at the cyberspace and Azran is just echoing the sentiment,” he said. “And while Utusan Malaysia plays up the issue of how good MAS is, you have to look at the fact of the case. AirAsia and MAS have different target groups.”

An air steward commented on Facebook that a doctor at the airport in Vietnam certified the child was not fit to fly, and that in view of the health of the other people onboard the 180-seat aircraft, the airline decided to fly the family back later, when it was safe to do so. "It's amazing how the media had exaggerated and made a small issue into a big thing," the steward commented. "These are situations where we deal with all the time."

Yesterday, Utusan Malaysia published another story about AirAsia refusing to fly back the corpse of a Malay lady who passed away in Jogjakarta on 20 May. According to the article, the airline claimed that it had no license to provide such service. The article went on to say that MAS helped the family members in connecting with Garuda Indonesia to send the body back.

A regional advertising executive, while not condoning the attacks, noted that agencies always advise brands to say things carefully and brand leaders not to retaliate as individuals. Statements should be made through PR rather than without a proper press release.

“Maybe Azran says the best thing, but it can be taken out of context,” the executive said. “But it is unfair to claim damages on the brand image. After all, how many people will see this article? It takes a lot to hurt a brand in the long term. Give it one or two weeks and it will be over.”

The newspaper may find its own brand image, rather than that of AirAsia, suffering from the whole affair, according to one regional media executive. This person called the newspaper's attacks sickening and damaging to the editorial integrity of one of the oldest newspapers in the country. 

“It is media bullying, and it is not serving the benefits of the people," this source said. "What are they trying to achieve? Advertisers should pull ads from Utusan. It is seen as a supportive act if brands continue to advertise at the daily, and no brand wants to associate itself with such media.”

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