The PR team at Malaysia Airlines has been under serious fire for their mishandled response to the MH370 crisis. But we ask, can they be forgiven considering it’s a one-of-kind situation?
“YES” says Mara Carpencu, PR Consultant, Active Public Relations
The situation was confusing for the investigators themselves… when crucial information is missing altogether, the communications team has little to go by
More than three months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and we are still left only with guesses and suppositions as to what happened to the plane and the 239 passengers on board. Extensive search operations haven’t amounted to much and hope that the missing plane will be found is dimming. As the world followed the story breathlessly after the first news announcement on March 8, a wave of scrutiny hit Malaysia Airlines and their communications team for the way it handled the crisis. The airline’s reputation was undoubtedly put to the test as they received widespread criticism for their crisis communications strategy.
But in light of the peculiarities of the tragic event, is it fair for their PR team to take the heat? Or is the nature of the incident and the entire team involved part of the blame? To answer this as the latter, we must first look at who was heading the investigation from the very beginning. It’s important to note that the airline was not the only entity involved, but included the Ministry of Transport and other Malaysian government bodies, as well as aviation authorities. These entities collaborated during the search operations, including the communications protocols and addressing the media and the public. The investigation was painstaking from the onset and authorities lacked information themselves.
One of the first rules in crisis communications is to be transparent and open with the public and share all the information available as soon as possible. In this particular case, the situation was confusing for the investigators themselves, who had many difficulties in pinning down the route of the aircraft after it disappeared from the radar, not to mention in locating a potential crash site. When crucial information is missing altogether, the communications team has little to go by.
A few days after the disappearance, Malaysia Airlines brought in a global PR agency, with experience in aviation crisis situations to lead the communications team. The team of seven experts came from the firm’s Singapore, London and New York offices to Kuala Lumpur and attempted to make the best of what was available to them – the information provided by the Malaysian authorities and investigators. The limited information was shared on multiple channels, including live press conferences and social media platforms. On the Malaysia Airlines website, the company posted press releases to help communicate with the public.
Malaysia Airlines’ Twitter account shared updates with the hashtags #MASalert and #MH370 to link Twitter users to their information about the flight, even creating a YouTube channel which they did not have before the flight incident, posting messages of sympathy and apologies from Malaysia Airlines and their dedication to help the victims’ families.
The public opinion and the loved ones of the missing will not be satisfied until the reason for the incident is discovered and the responsible parties are brought to justice. But crisis communications for air crash disasters are never easy, and in this case was made far more difficult due to the nature of the incident, the volume of people to account for and the limited information given to the PR team that could be made available to the public.
“NO” says Prem A. Ramachandran, Founder, White Water Public Relations
It doesn’t matter if you are a small or a large agency. What actually matters is diagnosing the situation properly
Where is MH370? There are so many questions still unanswered, and as time goes by we don’t know if they ever will be. We boast of technological supremacy and state-of-the-art satellites, yet nothing has been able to trace the ill-fated aircraft.
However, the manner in which the whole situation was dealt with from a PR point of view was appalling. People were left guessing. The biggest blunder committed by the communications team was to not inform the people directly concerned with the situation. The families were shocked and struggling to get answers, yet had no immediate intimation from the authorities or the communications team.
There are some key areas – which although are seemingly basic requirements from a crisis communications team – that the Malaysian Airlines PR team failed to address, and as a result, contributed to the global criticism they face:
- They failed to provide a dedicated social media platform, separate from the company platform, which could provide regular updates specifically for the situation. This would have ensured that all the people who sought information had a single platform available.
- They did not dedicate a hotline specifically for family members of the passengers to call. They failed to acknowledge adequately that these were the people who needed support and consolation, yet the systems were not in place.
- Similarly to the above point, a dedicated hotline for the crisis communications team to respond to all the media queries was not enforced.
- Daily media briefings at a stipulated time by the dedicated company spokesperson on a web platform should have been instrumented, to allow the media to log in and ask questions, and ensure that the media/family member communication lines were separate but equally accessible.
Information trickled in quite slowly and very late in the initial phase. This is the litmus test for any PR firm or the in-house corporate communications department. Keeping quiet is one of the biggest mistakes in today’s day and age, as social media engines work overtime during such times and the whole scenario can take a totally different shift. Information today is flowing even faster than the ‘speed of thought’. So they cannot be forgiven for not managing and prioritising the expectations of the families associated with this tragedy with their responsibilities to the wider media.
It doesn’t matter if you are a small or a large agency. What actually matters is diagnosing the situation properly, and I believe that they failed to do so. The PR team of an airline should create holding statements for hypothetical scenarios and this should be properly brainstormed along with the top management and all the stakeholders. Otherwise it is just a booklet of hollow statements, which can always backfire if not properly articulated – as this case clearly demonstrates. The team should follow different case studies from across the world to understand and develop such a document to prepare for worst-case scenarios.