by Andrew C. Erickson ’15
There are not many news events that can capture the attention of the entire world for several weeks in a row, but Malaysia Airlines happened to be the subject of just such a news event last March when one of its planes disappeared without a trace en route to Beijing. It was bad press from the beginning, as any such tragedy would be, but successive instances of poor handling from the corporation’s crisis communications team amplified the event into a story of international interest. If Tylenol’s handling of finding tampered products in the 1980’s is the gold standard of good crisis management, the Malaysia Airlines tragedy may go down in history as one of the worst.
The main problem that the company was wrestling with was re-establishing trust in its brand and services after a failure in securing the safety of the 239 passengers and crew aboard the flight. This breach of trust took a huge chunk out of their revenue in the subsequent months because no one wanted to fly with Malaysia Airlines. There are four main reasons that the airline failed in regaining that trust in the crucial weeks that followed the disappearance.
1) Refused to hire outside communications assistance—While Malaysia Airlines has worked with many public relations firms before, it attempted to handle the entire crisis internally. While you can debate whether or not this is a crucial error, considering the bad handling it is clear in retrospect that a little help would not have gone amiss. An outside perspective can do a lot for a company including keeping a cool head and offering experienced advice. There are firms that deal with crises on a daily basis and so know all the best ways to minimize media damage.
2) Failed to establish trust early—When an event gains as much media attention as the disappearance of MH370, every detail is under minute scrutiny. It is extremely important for a company to establish itself as the fastest, most reliable source of information as quickly as possible. If a company can do this in the midst of a crisis, the media and the stakeholders will stop investigating elsewhere and stop speculating which makes it easier to control the message. Malaysia Airlines failed to do this within the first 24 hours of the crisis by changing in its press releases without explanation the time that it lost contact with the plane. Little inconsistencies like that amplify the feelings of distrust from people following the events closely, such as the company’s most important stakeholder group, the families.
3) Disrespected the human dignity of families—This is perhaps Malaysia Airlines’ most critical error. The families of those on board the plane have the most power to forgive and redeem the airlines. They received a lot of media attention because of their deep personal connection to the event which means they have a lot of control over the message that the media sends out. Also, a key step in regaining trust is to show compassion for the human life at stake. The airline failed at this front from the very beginning by offering the families a mere $5,000 for the lives of those on board the plane at one of the first press conferences. Later, at a press conference less than two weeks after the event began, a distraught family member was bodily dragged out of a press conference by security after she was causing a disturbance. Only a few days later, some of the family members were notified by text message that new data indicated that all on board the plane were dead. These kinds of callous actions fed the media new angles from which to continue telling the story of the crisis and made the company look even worse.
4) Underestimating the international interest—This is, in itself, one of the least important mistakes that the airline made in the crisis. However, it did amplify all of the other mistakes. When no one is watching it does not matter what you say, but once the cameras of the entire world are on you, then it is essential that every word, action, and event is conveying the message of compassion, humility and regret necessary to regaining the trust of your audiences.
For more opinions on the Malaysia Airlines crisis, check out these posts from PR Daily, the International Business Times, Ragan and PR professional, Peter Davies. Let me know in comments what you think about this crisis. What are some ways they could have foreseen and avoided these mistakes? What can they do now to help regain the trust of their potential customers?