Air Canada CEO created a PR disaster with comments on his French skills, experts say

·4 min read

Air Canada's new chief executive ignited a PR disaster by his inept handling about his mastery of the French language that could have repercussions for the airline as it attempts to get back on its feet from the COVID-19 pandemic, public relations experts say.

"I can't remember a more tone deaf and ham-fisted handling of a new CEO's debut on the public stage than this," said Bob Pickard, a veteran public relations expert and principal at Signal Leadership Communication Inc.

While former Air Canada chief financial officer Michael Rousseau may be very capable, Pickard said his maiden speech as CEO Wednesday — delivered almost entirely in English, coupled with a defensive response to reporters and then an unsatisfactory apology the next day — demonstrate a failure of emotional, cultural, communications and social intelligence.

Rousseau should have addressed his language shortcomings head-on and either not made the speech to begin with, or proactively addressed them.

Instead, he showed great disrespect to Air Canada employees and customers, especially by releasing an apology on the company's website a day later rather than a personal video where he could try to strike the right chord of contrition, Pickard said in an interview.

Just saying sorry to those who were offended is PR 101 nowadays, he said.

"It may be too late to put the toothpaste back into the tube from a public relations perspective.

"However, if he were to follow up the text-based apology with an immediate statement and to do his best in the French that he does speak, even if it's filled with errors or sounds strange with a heavy accent, I believe just making the effort signals the respect."

Canadian politicians piled on Rousseau, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling it "an unacceptable situation," noting that the minister in charge of official languages is "following up."

The New Democratic Party called for Rousseau's resignation. NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice, the party's lone MP in Quebec, says Rousseau was "spitting in the face of Quebecers and all members of French-speaking communities across the country."

He said Rousseau should be ashamed for boasting that his mother and wife speak French while never learning the language.

Boulerice noted that Canada's largest airline, based in Montreal, is subject to an average of 80 complaints annually to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. A spokesperson for the commissioner of official languages said Friday afternoon that more than 1,000 complaints about Air Canada have been filed since the incident on Wednesday afternoon.

Public relations expert Jason Patuano, senior director of public relations firm TACT, said Rousseau's lack of sensitivity could have a ripple effect on the airline, just as United Airlines faced a couple of years ago when its removal of a passenger from one of its flights went viral and had a large impact on the value of its stock.

He noted that an Air Canada ad on Facebook Friday attracted comments from customers vowing to boycott the airline.

So far, investors don't seem too troubled. Air Canada's shares climbed 6.2 per cent as the Toronto Stock Exchange set new record highs.

Patuano said it's too soon to say if Rousseau can survive the blunder.

"You don't have the chance to make a good first impression two times."

He said this event will linger in the background for several years and be very challenging for the airline.

The PR expert said it's important for companies to recognize there's no such thing as local news anymore with social media.

"My advice is always for people to remember that whatever they say, they need to remember that it can go more broadly very, very quickly."

Pickard said Air Canada's board of directors should intervene, at the very least, by installing a chief communications officer instead of relying on a lawyer who oversees several portfolios including human resources and public affairs.

He said Air Canada is known in the PR industry as being poor at corporate communications but Pickard said its unbelievable that Rousseau wasn't briefed in advance by a savvy communications person about issues and major cultural questions he could face.

The airline's board, which includes a chairman based in Britain and just two directors from Quebec, has yet to comment on the matter.

Air Canada didn't respond to a request for comment, including whether the board continues to have confidence in Rousseau.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

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Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press

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