“The human element should never be forgotten” - crisis communications experts on Malaysia Airlines text

Did Malaysia Airlines do the right thing to let the friends and families of those on-board MH370 know that their relatives were dead via a text message?

In the age of social media and constant communication, it may have been the only way that the airline could get the news to the relatives before it was leaked by the press.

“I appreciate the need for speed here for the airline. This is a global news story that is being played out live on television, radio and online media around the world,” Keith Beech, director of Core Management, the crisis comm division of Nexus Communications told The Drum.

“In this case the complexity of the story and the international response to the search appears to have overtaken and overwhelmed the human side of the story. There has to be a balance between the desire to get the information out to families as quickly as possible and the need to handle this situation with the greatest of sensitivity. In this case Malaysia Airlines appears to have got that balance wrong.”

With Topsy showing a sentiment score of 12 per cent for those tweeting about the subject – meaning that tweets about that term were more positive than 12 per cent of all other terms mentioned on Twitter today – it is clear that the public agree that sensitivity was not taken into account by Malaysia Airlines.

“It was horrendously insensitive!” Jonathan Bernstein, president at Bernstein Crisis Management said, with Andy Barr, founder of 10 Yetis PR firm adding “Not just everyone who works in communications would have winced at the news that the relatives were allegedly told via text message, but everyone with a soul.”

How should have the news been handled?

“Malaysia Airlines should have had a bank of pre-trained personnel ready to make some very delicate phone calls,” suggested Bernstein. “But even if telephone calls might be in their follow-up plans, their text completely omitted even an iota of compassion for the feelings of the passengers' families and loved ones.”

The text sent to families read: ‘Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia's prime minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean.’

Following three hours of complaints after the news of the text, the airline said the majority of the families were informed in advance of the Prime Minister’s statement in person and by telephone, insisting “SMSs were used only as an additional means of communicating”.

Even if this is true, the Twitter storm into the way the situation has been handled in the past few hours, and indeed the past two weeks, may make it difficult for Malaysia Airlines to recover.

“When the time comes to look back at how this could have been handled better, Malaysia Airlines will see a catalogue of poor decisions and incredibly insensitive mistakes. This is going to be a brand rebuilding exercise of BP oil spill scale,” warned Barr.

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