Crisis Communications Lessons from MH370By Thomas Murrell MBA, CSP International Business Speaker
The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 has dominated global media headlines for more than three weeks.
The compelling aviation drama has created a media frenzy that has never been seen before.
There has been a constant flow of misinformation, conjecture and conspiracy theories.
Now I've done a lot of work in Malaysia in the last 17 years, am the Chairman of a Malaysian-based business and have flown on that Malaysia Airlines very flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
I've also got lots of Malaysian friends and my thoughts go out to the families of those affected by this tragedy.
But this PR issue needs to be discussed in an open way within an international context so we can all learn.
The Malaysian dealing of the world's media has at best been described as "chaotic " and has been severely criticized.
"My overall view is that it's one of the worst cases of crisis management communications I've ever seen," announced one veteran PR consultant.
MH370 has also brought the issue of how to handle a crisis to centre stage. Malaysia's response has raised serious concerns about accountability, transparency and competence.
From the start, the Malaysian authorities were on the back foot.
It has only highlighted a very authoritarian and hierarchical leadership style.
Cross cultural communication, especially with Chinese families has been a master class of what not to do.
Every aviation expert has been wielded out to give their analysis because of the lack of facts.
Speculation has been rife only adding to the tension and information vacuum.
The fact it happened in Western Australia's backyard has made it all the more relevant. Each new development is reported with gusto as another chapter evolves.
All the time, those with lost ones are no closer to getting closure on what actually happened.
This vacuum of concrete information and the constant media reports make it even more painful for the families left behind, as they cling to anything.
The contrast between the Malaysian ways of communicating compared with the approach taken by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has been stark.
Especially around clear, concise and honest message delivery, so critical in a crisis.
So what are the lessons in crisis communications we can learn from MH370?
Providing accurate information is the first rule of crisis communication.
A lack of accurate information provides an environment in which conspiracy theories breed.
This just fuels the information vacuum.
"It has created a poisonous brew of distrust and grief, with police ejecting relatives from press conferences and a protest march in Beijing - something almost unheard of," was how one expert described it.
The Malaysians were slow to issue timely information.
This has angered stakeholders - especially families of those lost.
In the case of MH370's disappearance, an angry letter was posted online by a grieving relatives' support group in Beijing, accusing the Malaysian authorities of reacting too slowly.
"Since the flight lost contact 18 days ago, the airline, the government and the army of Malaysia continuously delayed, covered up, hid the truth and tried to deceive passengers and their families," the letter says.
"Such shameful and despicable behaviour not only cheated and destroyed our health and peace of mind, it prolonged the rescue effort and wasted a huge amount of time. If our beloved relatives have lost their lives because of this then the airline, the government and the military are the real murderers of our family."
4. Avoid Conflicting Information
There was a lot of conflicting information right from the start.
Hundreds of relatives in Beijing hired buses to the Malaysian embassy with a view to storming it because of the mis-information.
Police stopped the buses, but the protesters continued on foot, marching with banners: "The Malaysian government are executioners and murderers" and "We won't give up until we see our family members".
Stakeholders, especially relatives have been buffeted both by lack of information and by conflicting data, with hopes frequently raised then dashed.
The crisis plan failed to prioritize the concerns of the mostly Chinese families.
5. Visible Leadership
During a disaster, we turn around and look for our leaders.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, maintained a conspicuously low profile during the first week of the plane's disappearance.
"Why did it take Prime Minister Najib Razak eight days to appear in front of the world's media? He chose instead to pose for a photo-op with a cut-price chicken two days after the plane vanished," some critics have argued.
This is not a good look.
He finally appeared before the news media to announce that the government believed the plane had flown off course as the result of deliberate actions but refused to take questions from journalists.
When the focus shifted to Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott readily made himself available to the media even touring the Pearce airbase where search operations are based.
6. Empathy and compassion
Society expects leaders to be most concerned with the welfare of those affected by the disaster. Always focus on the human side of any disaster first.
"The airline has tried to follow the Triple R of crisis communications - regret, reason and remedy - but has been hampered by contradictory "facts" entering the public arena, fuelled by innuendo and false rumours.
Also, while it has expressed regret, it hasn't been able to offer reason and remedy - and nor can it until the plane is found, and likely causes of the crash ascertained," PR experts have reasoned.
7. Single Controlled Source of Information
When a crisis strikes many people are scared and confused.
Leaders need to mirror the feelings of the broader community and act in the best interests of society. We want them to be in control and be decisive.
In a crisis, leaders are judged by what they say and what they do.
What they say is important because the words and messages have a huge amount of impact in that moment of time.
The content is critical to match the serious context of the message.
Symbolic acts by leaders mean a lot.
Following a standard crisis communications manual is probably not the best look for leaders.
8. Beware Social Media
When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced sombrely that "flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean", this did not end the agony for the relatives and friends of the 239 people on board.
The families received text messages finally informing them of the plane's fate, in English first and then later in Chinese — a process that only heightened the anger of the relatives and friends of the Chinese people who perished on the flight.
Again, this only inflamed the situation.
It is a quick way to provide information, but is not very sensitive.
9. Culture In a Declining Life Cycle Business
The airline seemed like an organisation under siege. Perhaps the rut set in before the crisis and the crisis just highlighted some cultural issues for the organisation.
"The airline has racked up losses for the past three years, unable to deal effectively with high costs, unprofitable routes and the emergence of low-cost rivals. In 2013, it returned a negative 4% margin, worse than almost any airline in the world.
And, while China accounts for only 7% of the airline's capacity, China is a growth market; if Chinese passengers choose to fly on other airlines, that spells more trouble.
The airline's share price has been falling for some time, and has fallen a further 10% since MH370 went missing. It now languishes at about a tenth of its value in 2004," according to experts.
In 2013, Malaysia Airlines recorded a $336 million loss.
10. The National Brand Under International Pressure
The Malaysian government retains a large stake in Malaysia Airlines and "the brand is identified with the country" according to branding experts.
"Officials failed to understand the difference between the global media and the Malaysian press - the former demands transparency and answers; the latter is more compliant and forgiving," according to PR experts in the region.
The story will hurt both the airline and national brand.
"The Malaysian government is not used to dealing with the international media, especially in situations like this," nicely summarises the challenge in dealing with an international crisis.
"A crisis is not a rehearsal — you must do your preparation beforehand."
Finally, it is the feelings of the families that must come first and our thoughts are with them as this aviation drama drags out.
Please contact me if you require crisis communications training.