Every decent industrial dispute needs a villain, but it seems Qantas CEO Alan Joyce’s efforts to cast unions as corporate wreckers are backfiring badly.
With 30,000 workers, 11 unions, an iconic red and white kangaroo and the perennial headline-grabbers of aircraft safety, Aussie jobs and stranded holidaymakers, occasional high-profile industrial disputes are a fact of life at Qantas.
The airline has traditionally responded to union campaigning with a straight bat – make any claim and the airline would shut the issue down, convinced that responding would only inflame the situation.
But managing his first showdown, Joyce has opted for beat-up over hose-down. He’s grabbed the microphone off the unions, cranked up the amp and is ripping through his song-list at high volume – “A new spirit of Australia”, is followed by “Qantas pilots are greedy” with an encore of “I’m a really nice person and they’re trying to kill me”.
On any surface analysis of free and paid media coverage, Qantas is winning the PR war; the TV reports are sympathetic, talkback radio typically vitriolic and the company’s ‘exclusive’ drops have been running a dream in the tabloids.
But the verdict of this week’s Essential Report shows otherwise. The public is not singing along with Joyce because it turns out we like Qantas’s old stuff better than its new stuff.
Q. Qantas and its workers are currently in dispute over pay, conditions and jobs. Who do you think is most to blame for this dispute – Qantas management or the workers?
|Total||Vote Labor||Vote Lib/Nat||Vote Greens|
It’s been a fascinating war from a PR perspective.
Qantas, with its well-stocked team of flacks has taken on the role of aggressor: spurious death-threats, inflated wage estimates, planes withdrawn from service as ‘proof’ the union campaign was hurting, daily media conferences where the unions are given a whack, guerrilla websites attacking each union in detail, enthusiastic overstatement of the amount of disruption caused by industrial action. Meanwhile, full-page newspaper ads on almost a daily basis, soft-focus profiles on the airlines misunderstood genius and complimentary and apparently coordinated support from the tourism industry.
But despite all these well-resourced, well-planned and admittedly well-executed tactics, something is fundamentally flawed with the Qantas strategy.
Q. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
|Total agree||Total disagree||Don’t know|
|Moving some operations to Asia is necessary to ensure a strong future for Qantas||21%||61%||17%|
|Qantas should keep jobs in Australia||88%||7%||5%|
|Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is overpaid||73%||7%||20%|
|Qantas employees are overpaid||20%||44%||37%|
|Union industrial action at Qantas is irresponsible and disruptive||54%||31%||15%|
|Qantas workers have legitimate concerns which management should address||67%||13%||19%|
We tested this series of propositions that broadly characterise the unions’ and company’s public posturing.
At the heart of these numbers is a rejection of the business model underlying this dispute – people overwhelmingly reject Joyce’s strategy to move some of the airline’s operations to Asia.
And while the public may not have any love for disruptive industrial action, they also recognise the workers are in a corner fighting for an issue with which they sympathise.
That sympathy is about more than just a distaste at an Australian icon shifting jobs offshore; at its heart is a suspicion that corporate giants like Qantas are acting in nothing other than a narrow self interest.
When we asked the public in separate questions whether the decision to privatise Qantas in the first place had been a good thing just 23 per cent said yes, with 44 per cent taking the position the airline should never have been sold off.
This matched the lack of the support for privatisation of other entities like Telstra (20 per cent good, 53 per cent bad) and the Commonwealth Bank (26 per cent good, 42 per cent bad).
Indeed, 43 per cent of voters say they would support renationalising Qantas, similar to the numbers who would have the Government buyback the CBA (41 per cent) and Telstra (47 per cent).
These results suggest that the public resents their loss of control over institutions that were once theirs, a sense they no longer trust or identify with the corporate entities they have become.
In this context it’s no surprise that Qantas’s attempts to portray itself as a victim in what is effectively a dispute over sending the Flying Kangaroo offshore don’t win it many friends. Because when Joyce is speaking of Qantas’s interests, they are now very different form the public’s.
Q. Which of the following is likely to cause the most damage to Qantas’s reputation?
|Total||Vote Labor||Vote Lib/Nat||Vote Greens|
|Cutting Australian jobs and moving some operations to Asia||62%||71%||56%||66%|
|Industrial action by Qantas workers over pay and conditions||27%||20%||36%||22%|
In PR speak, the airline is stuck in a frame where people don’t trust management, don’t accept their plans and question their basic legitimacy. In this environment, no amount of spin will win you the public’s support.
Disclosure: The authors of this piece have done work for a number of Qantas unions.
- Peter Lewis | Director, EMC
& Jackie Woods | Senior Account Manager, EMC
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