Brands, Reputation and Passion

03/13/2015 11:32 am ET | Updated May 13, 2015

A short letter penned by Tony Fernandes, founder and Group CEO of AirAsia, has set a new standard for the tone and style of impassioned corporate leadership.

The letter was his email to customers after the disappearance of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 that crashed off the coast of Borneo into the Java Sea in late December. Less than an hour into its flight to Singapore, 162 people lost their lives.

Reeling from the tragedy and dealing with questions that may never be fully answered, Fernandes responded with passion and caring and found the courage to use a word that we rarely hear from a CEO: "love."

His words speak for themselves:

The past few weeks have been the most difficult weeks of my life since starting AirAsia 13 years ago.
I wanted to reach out and thank you for the warmth and support given to all of us. Your messages of love and encouragement strengthen our resolve to be better. We will continue to provide updates as the investigation goes on.
Rest assured, we are committed to reviewing and improving our products and services. We are more focused than ever to provide you with nothing but the best.
Even in our toughest times, we will continue to be the world's best and be better for you.
Together with my 17,000 AirAsia Allstars, we ask that you join us in praying for the family members and loves ones of those on board QZ8501.

(signed) Tony

That email wasn't the first of Fernandes' personal messages of caring. For example, in response to an earlier note of support, he tweeted:

One of many messages our guests, what we call passangers [sic] have been sending us. Thank you all our guests. Love tony.

Some attorneys might shudder at the thought of such an email. However, as a communication professional, I hope that we have entered a new era where passion from the top wins the day.

Of course, it is the passage of time that will tell the future story of AirAsia. Factors such as safety, passenger experience and investor confidence weigh heavily for long-term success.

From the beginning, though, Fernandes spoke from his heart and made a powerful point about what he holds dear. Those whom he calls "guests" responded ... because he struck a chord.

In my book, The Power of Reputation, I wrote that our collective experience with brands and reputation makes one thing clear: We judge organizations much the same way we judge the people around us. We look them in the eye, listen to what they say, watch how they behave and then we make our judgments. Simply put, we ask ourselves, Do we think they can they be trusted?

In that mix, emotion plays a powerful role in driving trust and building a strong reputation. It speaks to the depth of conviction and the importance of values.

Customers, investors, business partners, legislators, regulators and, very importantly, employees often look to it as a gauge. Simply put, they understand the importance of reputation as both an asset and a factor in mitigating risk.

As with all things in life -- not only the AirAsia tragedy -- something is bound to go wrong at some point. Reputations are tested, not when things are going well, but rather in the midst of a crisis, with all its drama and pressure. A strong reputation is crucial to building a foundation so that brands and corporate leadership are given the benefit of the doubt during those challenging times.

It is then that probing is the harshest. Most often, it is the media that leads the charge with their in-depth scrutiny, far-reaching digital voices and editorial platforms. And rarely do they give up until they unearth the core of the problem.

None of this is new. In fact, 100 years ago Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis previewed the dramatic relationship that would develop between business and the media on issues dealing with trust, values, behavior and reputation. In his 1914 book, Other People's Money, he wrote:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is the said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

So, if Fernandes can reach out with passion when times are the toughest, surely corporate leaders should be eager to speak out and share the passion behind their brands during those times that are far less stressed.

After all, we are all human. And brand loyalty is almost never strictly rational.