Welcome to a Thursday update from Unmade. Today, why brands boycotting the press never ends well, and yet another slip on The Unmade Index
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No brand upside for the Qantas battle with the AFR
Tim Burrowes writes:
In the last few days, outgoing Qantas boss Alan Joyce has thrown his toys out of the pram.
The target of his anger, as is often the case for glass jawed Australian business executives, was the Australian Financial Review’s Rear Window columnist Joe Aston.
News broke over the weekend that Qantas had reacted to Aston’s repeated criticisms of the airline’s ageing fleet and creaking technology by removing the print edition of the AFR from its VIP Chairman’s Lounges. The paper couldn’t be banned from Qantas Business and Club lounges because it already vanished at the start of the pandemic and did not return.
In addition, reported the AFR along with stablemates The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, free digital access to the newspaper over Qantas lounge wifi was also blocked.
As it happened, I was due to travel from my local Tasmanian airport to Sydney on Tuesday morning, so I decided to check for myself whether I’d be blocked from reading via the Qantas wifi when I changed planes in Melbourne.
It was not to be. The 20-year-old Dash 8-300 got half way across the Bass Strait before hitting a technical problem and turning back.
Instead I switched flights and made a two-and-a-half hour road trip to Launceston Airport to get the lunchtime direct flight to Sydney.
That meant I would no longer be able to check out what happened with AFR digital access in Qantas’s Melbourne lounge. But at least I could examine whether the paper was available on the inflight entertainment app once I’d boarded. Nope. The app wasn’t working, on iPad or phone.
How dare Joe Aston suggest that Qantas planes are old and that the company’s digital technology is full of bugs? Just because it’s true.
Of course any company is free to choose who to (and who not to) do business with. But blocking the AFR is bad brand work.
Qantas has positioned itself as politically progressive, supporting causes such as the vote for marriage equality and indigenous reconciliation. Yet there are few more progressive causes than freedom of speech. There can’t be much that is less on-brand than blocking legitimate criticism, even when it’s brutal. Your true brand values come out during bad times.
Where Qantas has got itself in a pickle is allowing egos to get involved.
Qantas might claim - if it was commenting on the debacle, which it isn’t - that Aston’s strident attacks on Joyce are personal. They are not. Even when they are about Joyce’s hefty remuneration, they are about Joyce’s behaviour as a businessman rather than anything in his non-work life.
The difference about Aston is that he goes further than is polite. This week’s caustic takedown of PWC boss Tom Seymour over the company’s disgraceful use of confidential ATO briefings to win business was one for the ages.
Reading that piece on Monday morning, my first thought was that Aston’s target was like a ghost in Sixth Sense. He didn’t realise he was dead.
The brutal obituary followed two days later when Seymour’s partners pulled the trigger.
Similarly, Alex Malley would still be riding the accountancy gravy train if it hadn’t been for Aston rudely pointing out the ridiculousness of his CPA-funded self promotion six years ago.
Going after the critics rarely works out.
VW pulled its ads from Fairfax newspapers a decade ago over coverage of problems with the cars. The criticisms were legitimate.
It just made the car brand look shifty (which was later proved to be true as the emissions scandal unfolded).
And Qantas has gone after Fairfax newspapers in the past, looking similarly petty when it pulled its ads in 2014 over negative reporting, switching its spend and distribution deal to News Corp instead.
Which is not to say that ads should not be paused on the day of negative coverage. There’s a huge difference between avoiding ads in an inappropriate environment, and using economic power to try to influence coverage.
Media boycotts generally hurt the brand as much as they do the outlet. If the media company has any sort of spine, it will feel obliged to keep going. Once that boycott begins, the publishers have nothing left to lose from the relationship, so they might as well go hard.
News Corp, which does not have a dog in the fight between Aston and Qantas, stood to benefit if the airline switched its ad spend this time. So it’s to the credit of executive chairman Michael Miller that he aligned with Nine on the issue:
“As someone who people attempt to intimidate when they don’t like coverage, I take exception to the pressure put on journalists and the media to stifle free speech.
“I get calls from people who run bigger advertisers than Qantas, who try to flex and try to impact and influence a journalist’s opinion, either favourably or to limit the impact to them.
“The point isn’t around commercials. It’s a form of corporate cancel culture, which I worry is increasingly happening.
“There are some organisations that feel they can use their influence in a way that can ultimately impact the principle of free speech and the role the media has in ensuring our democratic processes can be trusted and reputable.”
The debacle leaves Joyce’s successor Vanessa Hudson with one more mess to clean up. At some point, the newspapers will no doubt be allowed to quietly return.
There is just no upside for the Qantas brand in this fight.
Unmade Index loses out again
Seja Al Zaidi writes:
There was another decline in the Unmade Index, our measure of ASX-listed media and marketing stocks, yesterday. It fell 0.81% to land at 634.9 points.
Communications agency group Enero was again the biggest loser of the day, its share price falling 4.55% yesterday, a steeper decline than its 4.09% fall the day before.
Seven West Media also took a knock, dropping by 1.39%.
Domain and Nine saw similar small declines, falling 1.85% and 0.75% respectively.
Southern Cross Austereo rose by 1.23%.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back with more tomorrow.
Publisher - Unmade
"At some point, the newspapers will no doubt be allowed to quietly return" - quietly on the Qantas side. I'm sure the AFR will run a diary item when it happens :-)