Prime Minister calls Air Canada CEO's language gaffe 'unacceptable'

Air Canada's new chief executive officer ignited a PR disaster with his inept handling of a language controversy, experts say. The prime minister says the minister in charge of official languages is "following up."

Michael Rousseau responsible for PR disaster with comments on French, say experts

Following heavy backlash from federal and provincial officials, Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau issued a statement Thursday morning apologizing for his comments about the French language and promising to commit to improving his skill of the language. (Bloomberg)

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

"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 — almost entirely in English — his defensive response to reporters and then unsatisfactory apology 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 instead of a personal video where he tried to strike the right chord of contrition, Pickard said in an interview.

"He should be saying sorry, not just for those who were offended, which is PR 101 nowadays.''

WATCH | Air Canada's new CEO causes language furor in Quebec:

Air Canada CEO says he’ll learn French after Quebec backlash

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau is facing a big backlash in Quebec after saying he’d been too busy to learn French, despite living in Montreal for 14 years. He has since apologized for the comments and said he will learn the language.

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 he never learned 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 says more than 1,000 complaints about Air Canada have been filed since the incident on Wednesday afternoon.

Bad timing for airline trying to recover 

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 6.1 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.

He 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.''