Our key communication aim will be to rebuild passenger confidence: Rashmi Soni, Vistara

Rashmi Soni, VP & Head of Corporate Communications, Vistara, talks about how the company is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, leveraging digital and the paradigm shift in communication post-COVID

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: May 20, 2020 9:06 PM
Rashmi Soni

After two months of inactivity, domestic flights can finally resume flying from May 25 after receiving the green signal from the Indian government. Returning to the skies seems a reality after such a long stop. According to a report by CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory, the aviation industry has been incurring daily losses of around 65 crores due to shutdown of operations.

.Dire situations like these require desperate attempts of survival. The role of corporate communications becomes prudent in managing the crisis. With their exceptional communication and management skills, corporate communicators are heroes without capes in gloomy conditions like these. One of them being Rashmi Soni- VP & Head of Corporate Communications with Vistara – TATA SIA Airlines Ltd. Rashmi is responsible for formulating and executing the organization’s ambitious communication and sustainability strategy to garner holistic mindshare for the brand.

Rashmi Soni spoke to us about how Vistara is dealing with the coronavirus crisis, managing internal and external stakeholders, leverage to digital approach, a paradigm shift in communication post-COVID and more.

Edited Excerpts

How is Vistara dealing with the COVID-19 crisis? What are your views on the current scenario?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the aviation industry across the world and the scenario in India is not any different. All commercial domestic and international air travel remains temporarily suspended since 25 March 2020, which means a prolonged period of no revenues while fixed expenditures continue. This is truly unprecedented.

From the business standpoint, Vistara is revisiting existing contracts/business agreements with suppliers, vendors and other partners to trim or delay non-customer facing costs. Meanwhile, Vistara is also operating a number of cargo flights carrying essential commercial goods and relief material across the country.

There is also a natural focus on stepping up health and hygiene measures across touchpoints of air travel as social distancing becomes the new normal, at least for some time. Onboard our flights, we intend to minimize touchpoints of contact between our customers and crew by up to 80% for health and safety reasons, and we are readying for further changes that we may have to bring about in compliance with regulatory guidelines.

Whenever travel restrictions are relaxed, our key communication objective will be to rebuild passenger confidence in flying and to remind travellers that air travel is still the safest mode of transportation. This would involve communicating every effort that Vistara is making for the health and safety of its customers and staff, as well as appealing to travellers to take all necessary precautions while travelling.

What kind of emphasis is being given to digital? What are the digital strategies or campaigns being run during these times?

Digital platforms have anyway gained tremendous importance in marketing and communication plans of any organisation over the years. They become even more relevant in today’s times that require brands to engage with consumers quickly and in the most cost-effective ways. For any airline, the value doubles up because we cannot suddenly be silent as a brand if we are not operating any flights or promoting any aspect of our services.

In the initial days of the lockdown, the call volumes on our customer service line were hitting through the roof, going up by over 400% on some days. In navigating through this challenge, having a strong digital presence helped us a great deal. Apart from using digital channels to address customer queries/concerns and proving real-time updates to our customers, we are constantly driving user engagement through relevant content. Whether it is to assure travellers of the steps we are taking to ensure safety of our customers and staff, bringing inspiring stories from within the organisation to light, getting our Leadership closer to people, or to engage our customers in fun activities – the idea is to continue staying relevant. We even had a light-hearted banter with other major Indian airlines in the spirit of ‘being in this together’, which received a great response from millions of people and made headlines everywhere. We’re now also increasingly bringing our Leadership representatives on digital platforms in conversation with social media influencers to address travellers’ FAQs and to reassure our customers of our intent and efforts.

How does corporate communication manage internal & external communications and stakeholders?

The scale of this crisis is unprecedented, and its magnitude continues to magnify by the day. In such times, keeping internal stakeholders informed and engaged is as important as communicating with the outside world.

Externally, our focus remains on being as transparent as possible about our processes, practices and about our outlook for the future in terms of business as well as passenger services. A significant amount of our focus now also lies in creating more awareness and educating consumers about the ‘new normal’. From proactive customer communication to round-the-clock responsiveness to the media and other external stakeholders, we are making sure to be as clear in our communication as possible. We truly believe that it is in times of such crises that brands can truly build on their credibility and regular communication plays a very vital role in that regard. We continue to drive and contribute to meaningful news stories, participate in relevant forums and discussions, build thought leadership, use newer ways of engaging with our external audience and leverage technology and digital communication platforms to reach our customers directly.

On the internal communications front, we are running an all-encompassing campaign, touching all stakeholders to bring positivity among them and boost their morale. We’re bringing to light stories of courage of our colleagues across departments and functions about fighting all odds during these challenging times, while also engaging with them in fun activities using various tools and digital platforms – all to reunite and motivate everyone. However, we maintain the tonality of all our communication in check, keeping humour to appropriate limits.

How can one leverage communication to elevate their businesses during the time of the pandemic?

The scale of the crisis we are facing today is truly unprecedented and it makes Communications more relevant than ever before. Communication in such times needs to be more purpose-led than business-led with a long-term view, which will eventually positively impact the business following its own course  This is the time for organisations to build and rebuild their credibility among all stakeholders, and Communications is the only way to do it. This is simply because advertising or any promotional communication will remain largely suspended not just because of slashed budgets but also given the sensitivity of the ongoing situation. Meaningful, practical information dissemination and engagement with all external and internal stakeholders will be the only way to ensure business success. And therefore, there’s going to be a great amount of focus on communicating not what you do as a business but how you do it – demonstrating revised SOPs for operations; how the brand cares about health and safety of its employees and the people they serve; the brand’s learning from the crisis; displaying agility, etc.

What paradigm shift will the communication industry witness post COVID?

This crisis presents a unique opportunity, especially to brands in the travel, hospitality and tourism industries, to collaborate with their customers. This has not happened before – at least the scale and importance of it is much higher in the current times. For example, in air travel, airlines and passengers will have a shared responsibility to keeping air travel as the safest mode of transportation. Therefore, the paradigm shift is that of communication truly becoming a two-way street in this case. Arguably, it was always so, but the crisis of this pandemic gives a whole new dimension to this two-way communication. This means that every communication will be carefully processed on both ends and the role of PR/Corporate Communications, thus, remains crucial.

Secondly, we’re seeing the media landscape evolve in the wake of this crisis, which is expected to open up newer avenues and possibilities for communications. There will be a lot sharper focus on using tools and platforms - that brands had either not utilized in the past or under-utilized - to communicate directly with consumers because there is no room for messages to be lost in translation and because frankly, that is also the need of the hour. Basically, communication messages will change for some time and so will some of the mediums.

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