Air NZ PR Team: 1 ; NZ Media: 0

I'm writing this on Wednesday morning, but holding publication back until today since I don't wish to seem insensitive to the tragedy suffered by friends and family of the five New Zealanders killed in the Airbus crash in France on November 28. It's always terrible when a loved one dies, especially if it is sudden and accidental.

My issue is with the PR department at Air NZ who have milked these deaths for their own purpose, namely a brand building exercise. And with those in the NZ media who have gone along with it.

When the accident occurred Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe did the right thing in flying to Perpignan, France to take charge - both by helping the French Aviation Authority sort out the cause of the accident, and in ensuring that the bodies of the missing New Zealanders were recovered and returned home.

But someone, somewhere realised that this accident also offered a PR opportunity. If handled correctly New Zealanders could be made to feel the sorrow of the friends and family whose loved ones had died; and then they could be made to feel 'good' about Air NZ if Air NZ were seen to be 'doing the right thing'. It was like we had our own mini-Diana on the nightly news in the weeks following the aircrash. Every little morsel of trivia was offered up, and all the while Air NZ/Fyfe was seen to be 'doing the right thing'.

This culminated last Tuesday night when we were treated on both channels to footage of an Air NZ jumbo towed to a hangar where a private ceremony was being held for friends, family and colleagues. Dave Dobbyn was there to perform his song "Welcome Home". Sorry, did Air NZ describe it as a private ceremony? How can it be private when you've invited the media or supplied them with your own footage of the private ceremony?

Look, I don't deny the company the right to hold a private ceremony to honour the deaths of their staff. It provides closure for friends, family, and work collegues. What I do object to is providing the images of that private ceremony to the media for your own corporate gratification. We were treated to flag draped coffins standing on the tarmac as if these dead men were fallen soldiers killed in battle. And lest we miss this imagery, Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe actually said "They died in service for their country"!

WTF? I know that the NZ government bought 72% of Air NZ a few years back to stop them collapsing but how does this translate to "They died in service for their country"? Those guys were in France to check a leased plane, prior to it's return to the leassor, Air NZ. That's all. It's terrible they died, but people die on work sites across New Zealand every year. It should have been left as a family tragedy, a truly private ceremony, and not an opportunity to show that Air NZ is capable of 'doing the right thing'.

As we speak I'm pretty sure (but yes, I'm guessing) that some polling company is quietly polling a sample of New Zealanders on how they feel about Air NZ, and how they think Air NZ handled the tragedy, and if that's made them more or less likely to fly with Air NZ in the future. And I'm guessing (again) that responses will be overwhelmingly positive.

Me? I'll continue to buy my air tickets based on price. I'll fly Air Iraq if it's cheap enough...

Footnote: Air NZ also never let pass by an opportunity to remind us that the plane was operated and crashed by Germans either (i.e. nothing really to do with Air NZ at all, doncha know?) - this excerpt from the NZ Herald is but one example:

Mr Fyfe said the arrival had been an extremely emotional time for the families and friends of the lost men and Air New Zealanders around the world.

"Arriving home in New Zealand will mark the end of another chapter as we all come to terms with the tragedy that occurred in France when we lost our men and A320 operated by XL Airways of Germany," he said.

Sh!t, am I that old? I remember when the media reported the news, not just published PR handouts...

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