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A lesson in putting out the branding fire.

REPUTATIONS are hard fought for and easily lost. That old saying has never rung so true for two of Australia’s biggest brands – the national airline carrier, Qantas, and the nation’s most beloved code – The Australian Football League.

Qantas’ reputation is in a downward spiral that resembles a shot-down Sopwith Camel during the First World War. A series of admissions from the airline during a Senate inquiry and an ACCC investigation into the airline for selling tickets to already-cancelled flights has led to the brand’s pilot – now former CEO Alan Joyce – bailing out early this week.

Without any doubt the once proud and dominating brand has had a crash landing, compounded by the loss of control over Joyce’s personal brand – a $24 million bonus does not resonate with the people during a cost-of-living crisis.

Meanwhile, the AFL has had to face one of the biggest scandals in its VFL/AFL history since founded in 1896. A final minute umpiring decision in the Round 23 Adelaide v Sydney match has called into question the league’s umpiring and review systems, after a decision by the goal umpire meant the Swans took the game by one point and crushed the Crows’ finals hopes. In the aftermath of the controversy, outgoing CEO Gill McLachlan admitted that the goal umpire incorrectly called a behind, and a review would have overturned that decision leading to a change in finals fortunes.

How do these two brand crises compare? There is a significant difference in the leadership styles between the two brands that will see one ride out the bumps well and the other take years to revive its reputation.

Gill McLachlan and Alan Joyce have both been prolific in the media during their tenure, and have been exceptionally good in their roles. They are both very similar in their abilities to create a headline, garner media support, communicate to larger audiences and use their platforms to influence, pressure and lobby on social issues.

Take for example the two biggest social issues that Qantas and the AFL have entered into the fray on – marriage equality and the Voice.

When the nation was in the heat of the debate ahead of the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite, Qantas boss Alan Joyce was a leading corporate voice backing same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, when it was announced a referendum would be held to decide if the Australian Constitution will be amended to acknowledge Aboriginal people, the AFL was one of the first corporations to announce it would back a “Yes” vote.

Both public political statements worked in favour of the brands ultimately, though it is worth noting that the AFL has refused to promote a “Yes” vote during finals season.

Gill McLachlan and Alan Joyce are significantly different, but it is their communication that sets them miles apart in their standing within the community. In the face of criticism of the brands, Joyce is defensive and aggressive, McLachlan is consultative and calm. In a recent ABC 7.30 interview, Alan Joyce spoke to Sarah Ferguson after Qantas announced a $2.5 billion profit and was as defensive as he has been during the Senate inquiry. CEOs at the top of their game can handle even the extreme heat of a Senate inquiry while upholding the brand’s integrity.

The personal brand of these two CEOs is having a deep effect on these brands. It is the reason why McLachlan stayed on for the last 18 months after announcing his departure and why Joyce had to take the emergency ejection seat two months earlier than his planned November retirement.

Incoming Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson now has Joyce’s mess to clean up – the financial payouts, lawsuits, workforce issues, customer dissatisfaction and suggested anti-competitive behaviour all leaving the Qantas brand in tatters.

Joyce could learn something from the way McLachlan dealt with the umpiring error this week. He took the lead in the conversation and narrative. He owned the mistake and didn’t divert from the key message that mistakes happen and that he was sorry. This effectively put a close to the issue with no more fuel to be added to the fire. It was b rave, it was smart, it was the right thing to do for the brand to move on.

By Nic Hayes, Managing Director, Media Stable.

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