AirAsia promoter Tony Fernandes’s video message on his Facebook page apologising for his decision to do a campaign video in the run-up to the May 9 vote in Malaysia in favour of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has since been ousted, has created a storm on the digital media.

Razak was defeated in the polls by the 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad.

In the latest video, posted on Sunday, Fernandes explained that he was under immense pressure, adding that it was not right (for him to side with one candidate) and that he will forever regret this decision.

In the same video, he says that AirAsia had announced 120 extra flights at lower-than-usual prices especially for the election, which would have carried 26,000 people home to vote.

“I knew it wouldn’t be popular with the government, but I felt as an airline we had to serve the people,” he said.

However, within 24 hours, the airline was summoned by the Malaysian Aviation Commission and told to cancel all those flights.

AirAsia X Chairman Rafidah Aziz acknowledged in a Facebook post that Fernandes had made a “bad judgment” when he tried to “please and placate” Najib and the previous administration.

She said Fernandes “did not have to go to that extent to placate” the previous government. However, he did it because he needed to stop the administration from “tightening the screws on where it would hurt most — AirAsia and AAX (AirAsiaX).”

Political minefield

Experts from the marketing industry believe that Fernandes’ experience also shows the importance of ensuring that brands do not openly side with any political affiliations.

Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight, points out that no matter how top executives vote, most large businesses in diverse democracies are careful to maintain neutrality in their statements when it comes to political choices.

“Tony Fernandes made a very strong, visible and clear political statement — whether out of conscious choice or under compulsion, only he knows.”

Fernandes’s decision to promote the former PM will likely have a fallout. Says Dutta, “In the short term, AirAsia may take a hit. Corrective PR action is already under way, with the apology Fernandes has issued.

However, whether that will be enough for customers, or more will be expected, remains to be seen.”

Dutta also feels that given the size of the airline today and its importance for travellers, “I think AirAsia would recover in due course.”

Others agree and say that AirAsia’s current problems were unlikely to affect its operations as the airline enjoys near-monopoly in Malaysia, but the going could get difficult if the new Malaysian government decides to start awarding routes to other airlines in Malaysia. Interestingly, it was Mahathir Mohammad who had given the licence for AirAsia to Fernandes for a nominal one ringgit in 2001.

Harish Bijoor, brand strategist and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, adds that brands must be politically neutral basically because when you indulge in politics or political comments, there are two sets of constituencies — one which will support and one which will oppose the comments.

“When there are two sets of constituencies, it is best not to irritate any of them. The personal expressions and views of business leaders must be kept personal,” he points out.

‘Brands must be neutral’

Jagdeep Kapoor, Managing Director, Samsika Marketing and a 40-year veteran of the industry, says that brands must be neutral and that the only god whom the brand should serve is the customer.

Another marketing guru, who did not want to be quoted as he is not allowed to talk to the media, said that it seems that Fernandes backed the wrong horse in the recently concluded elections in Malaysia and was now trying to retrieve the situation.