As Air India gets ready to make an entry into Star Alliance, the need for an image makeover has become urgent. For only the second time in its decades old existence will the airline be hiring a Public Relations firm. Air India today issued an advertisement of a two stage tender process for hiring a PR firm for a two-year contract. Among other things, the staid old airline now wants an active and robust social media presence through the new PR agency. It is also looking to monitor press coverage overseas, something it has not been able to do well till now.
On the social media front, Air India is only active on Facebook. It has small team of three people internally looking after Facebook communication with some help from an outside agency but virtually no presence on other social media platforms like Twitter.
The last time Air India used an external PR agency was during V Thulasidas' tenure when Prefect Relations was roped in. Now, the airline's image has taken a severe beating since then due to dismal on-time performance and frequent work and pay related issues with employees. It still ranks at the top in passenger complaints among all other private airlines for domestic flights.
Air India gets more than its routine share of bad press, perhaps more than the private airlines. But then, the oft repeated argument is that since it is completely Government owned and runs on taxpayers' money, it should be ready for more scrutiny than other airlines. Among the private carriers, only Jet Airways and SpiceJet are listed on Indian bourses so they face the mandatory review of accounts every quarter. But most of the private airlines are quite wary of the media, choosing to interact with journalists only rarely.
Every private airline in India uses an external PR agency for image building and information dissemination. But in AI, things have continued to work like in the old days when AI was actually two separate airlines with different mandates and separate workforce. Even now, there are people manning the airline's in-house PR department in different cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Cochin, Kolkata and Bangalore but they seem to have little coordination among themselves.
The tender document inviting PR firms says applicants should have a minimum turnover of Rs 5 crore annually, should not have any other client competing with AI while it signs a contract with the airline and should comrehensively monitor media coverage in India, overseas markets and on social media.
It is high time for Air India to look for image building tools. If only it also improved its employee behaviour and on-time performance alongside.