Ever since AirAsia Flight 8501 went missing Sunday, CEO Tony Fernandes has been a constant presence — both physically and digitally — amid the crisis, with a response that appears to be hitting the right notes.
He traveled to Surabaya, Indonesia, where families gathered and where the plane had departed, within hours of the news that the plane had gone missing. There, he removed his trademark red baseball cap and met with relatives of the passengers. On Tuesday, when the airline confirmed that wreckage found in the Java Sea was from the plane, he said on Twitter he was again "rushing to Surabaya" to be at the epicenter of the crisis.
That tweet was just one of more than 20 he has posted on Twitter since first announcing the news about the missing flight. His constant updates shared his whereabouts, provided new information on the search, and reiterated his focus on the passengers' families ("my heart bleeds for the relatives of my crew and our passangers"). That misspelling of "passengers" was just one of many typos that made the tweets come off as rushed and genuine — and therefore, credible and authentic.
"This is my worse nightmare," one tweet of his read. The airline's logo on social media was also changed to a more somber gray and white from its usual bright red.
And on Tuesday, Fernandes issued a full-throated apology that laid the burden of responsibility at his feet. "I apologize profusely for what they are going through," he said at a press conference, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. "I am the leader of this company; I take responsibility. That is why I am here. I am not running away from my obligations even though we don't know what's wrong [in causing the crash]. The passengers were on my aircraft, and I have to take responsibility for that."
While so far Fernandes' response may be earning him praise, in this case it's more essential than usual for him to be at the center of the crisis as CEO. That's not only because of the enormity of the disaster, which involves the potential loss of 162 lives and the subsequent risks to the airline's reputation and future. It's also because Fernandes' identity is so tied to the airline's image.
Fernandes and AirAsia have been compared to Richard Branson and Virgin, another company led by a celebrity CEO whose image is indelibly tied to the brand. (He has even worked for Branson in the past, and the two are reportedly friends.) Fernandes bought the then-indebted airline in 2001 for merely 29 cents. Born in Malaysia and educated in Britain, he has hosted the Asian version of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" TV show. And he doesn't just maintain a high profile with outsiders; he spends several days a month working with cabin crews or ground workers and involving himself in low-level hiring.
When a crisis of this enormity occurs, it's important for any CEO to be present — visibly comforting families, providing transparent and frequent updates, and offering apologies as well as promises that those suffering will be compensated. Yet when a CEO is as tied to the company's image as Fernandes is, it's even more critically urgent that the leader be front and center. If an executive cultivates himself as part of the brand's image in good times, there's an even greater void if he's absent in bad times. So far, Fernandes seems to understand that towering responsibility.
Note: An early version of this post incorrectly stated that Tony Fernandes traveled to "Surabaya, Malaysia," when it should have stated "Surabaya, Indonesia."