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Anatomy of a Public Relations Disaster

Garuda Indonesia Backsteps its Over-reaction to Online Criticism by Leading Social Media Influencer

In what will perhaps recorded in the annals of marketing and corporate management as an example of "how NOT to handle online criticism," the National flag carrier Garuda Indonesia issued a public announcement on July 14, 2019 forbidding passengers and crews from taking photographs and “selfies” on board the flag carrier's aircraft.  The prohibition was contained in an announcement cited as NO.JKTCSS/PE/60145/19 that was signed by Evi Oktaviana with a job title listed as being charge of Standardization & Development.

Claiming the prohibition was being issued on orders of senior management, the rule stipulates that photographic documentation by passengers or crew of all activities on the aircraft, both in still photography or videography, was no longer permitted.

To make an even finer point regarding the prohibition, crew were ordered to use “assertive” language in enforcing the regulation, unless prior permission to photograph was obtained in advance from Garuda.

The directive also warned that sanctions would apply on both those making photographs and crew failing to enforce the prohibition.

The pronouncement – that was eventually tempered greatly and changed to say passengers were welcome to make photographs, providing permission to do so was first obtained from all the people appearing in any part of the photograph – was just one part in a series of over-reactions to a online Vlog posted by Ruis Vernandes, an Indonesian “influencer” who uploaded the picture and video of a crudely hand-written menu given to Business Class Passengers flying from Sydney to Bali.

Publication of the incident by Rius Vernandes and his traveling companion, Elwiyana Monica Octaviana, precipitated a formal police complaint filed against the couple by the Worker’s Union representing Garuda’s Crew alleging defamation and also a series of highly embarrassing public pronouncements by both Garuda’s Union and the Airline’s Management.

What follows is the chronology of what became a long and drawn out drama played out prominently in the Indonesian Nation Press and played out virally on the Internet:

Saturday, July 13, 2019: Professional influencer Rius Vernandes uploaded to YouTube and Instagram his experience of being presented a hand-written menu in Business Class with his female companion, Evi Oktaviana, while flying from Sydney to Bali. As published on his Intsagaram account (@rius.vernandes), Rius said that the stewardess, who had apparently written the menu, explained that the proper menu “was still at the printers.”  The publication of the menu also included a note suggesting Rius and Evi accepted the make-shift menu in good humor and were gracious as regards the apology of the Business Class stewardess. Nonetheless, in his capacity as a travel blogger, Rius uploaded the video and photographs to his social network account. His posting quickly went viral and was widely shared online.

Sunday, July 14, 2019: Aware of the substantial online exposure of the incident, Kompas.com reports that the Vice-president Corporate Secretary of Garuda, M. Ikhsan Rosan, issued a public statement refuting that the menu uploaded by Rius was the official Business Class menu for the subject flight. Rosan insisted that Garuda actually had printed menus for Business Class passenger, and the menu shown on Social Media were only the handwritten notes made by the stewardess. Iksan refuted the explanation published by Rius Vernandes, questioning how he came into possession of the hand-written menu, bolstering his claim by citing no other passenger had made a similar posting on the Internet. In a rather contradictory statement, Iksan asked why the vblogger would post the embarrassing information online.

On Sunday evening Rius published a 21-minute long response on Youtube proving that other passengers on the flight were also being given the handwritten menus and that the stewardess gave him her written menu, as she also did with other passengers.

Also on Sunday, a Garuda Indonesia employee, Adhitya Mahendru, who is a member of Garuda Indonesia’s Workers Union, filed a police complaint against Rius and Elwiyana with the Soekarno-Hatta Police Precinct claiming defamation under Indonesia’s Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Regulations.

Monday, July 15, 2019: As a result of Mahendru’s complaint, a formal police summons was issue to the vblogger and his partner to appear for a police interview at 10:00 am on Wednesday July 17, 2019. Due to previous engagements, the two requested and were granted a postponement of the interview until Tuesday, July 23, 2019.

Thursday, July 18, 2019: Rius and his pro-bono attorney, Abraham Sriwidjaja, conducted a press conference at the Hotel Da Vinci Sudirman in Jakarta. During their press conference they confirmed discussions had been held with Garuda’s management at which it was agreed that the ongoing dispute would best be settled in an amicable “family style” without resorting to criminal complaints and other legal steps.

Srwiwidjaja bemoaned Garuda’s efforts to criminalize his client’s posting that he insisted did not meet the legal standard of defamation. Adding: “Don’t criminalize such matters because this is not simply about Rius. Let’s not get to the point where criticism of a company or anything is criminalized.” He said he stood ready to defend his client until the police complaint was formally withdrawn by Garuda and its complicity Union member.

Friday, July 19, 2019: The CEO of Garuda Indonesia, Ari Askhara, the Chairman of the Garuda Cabin Crew Union Tommy Tampati, Rius, lawyer Srwijaya, and with celebrity lawyer Hotman Paris serving as a moderator - met at the Hotel Raffles in Jakarta. At that meeting Tampati confirmed that the Garuda Workers Union would withdraw its complaint against the Social Influencer Rius. According to Hotman Paris, all parties to the incident agreed to peacefully settle all outstanding matters without any party required to apologize or admit any wrongdoing.

Leading media in Indonesia also report that in order to underline its good faith Garuda is providing Rius with tours of its catering facilities and complimentary passage on a number of Garuda flights.

Meanwhile, while not missing a beat, Air Asia performed some masterly executed "guerilla marketing" by announcing a photography contest for people making selfies during one of their flights.

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