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Flight MH370: Malaysian officials criticised for poor PR, but how do you prepare for the unprecedented?

Jane Wilson is a communication and reputation consultant. She is a former chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations

Malaysia Airlines' communications has come under scrutiny

The PR team at Malaysia Airlines has been under fire in recent days with the Telegraph newspaper today describing the actions of the airline and the Malaysian government as a “masterclass in how not to deal with the aftermath of an incident".

But how do you prepare for an unprecedented disaster – a Black Swan event that has no case study to refer to in the crisis management manual?

This desperately sad incident has no precedent. No plane has ever been missing for so long without wreckage being found. Combine that with the multitude of civil, defence and private organisations involved, the international scale of the effort and the fact that the traditional methods for tracking the plane had been switched off and I imagine the PR team were tearing pages out of the crisis comms manual with every hour that passed.

I’ve written a number of disaster recovery and crisis communication plans in my career, although admittedly nothing on this scale. You consider the likely (and less likely ‘Titanic’) scenarios and build a response communication programme that will dovetail seamlessly with the operational actions that your organisation will take.

And this last point is vital. Without a strong sense of what will actually be happening operationally in the aftermath of an event and clear guidance on how all parts of an organisation and its partners will work together, even the best written comms plan is rendered useless.

With each passing day, I sense that this combination of lack of precedence, highly complex interdependencies between Malaysian agencies and international partners, the absence of traditional tracking sources on board and a lack of coordination within the airline have led to public confusion and poor public relations. Even the best PR team may have buckled in these circumstances.

Let’s consider some of the issues:

The airline took too long to let the public know the plane was missing and has appeared to be withholding information

Waiting until after the plane was due to land before announcing that it was missing appears to have been a mistake. The airline’s response has been that first it wanted to ensure that families were personally informed and cared for and that it wanted to secure as many facts as possible before announcing. These are both noble and also traditional approaches but in an always on world of rolling news and digital media, they were not seen as acceptable.

Subsequently, it was not until the weekend that the airline and the defence minister were able to piece together enough satellite evidence to provide an update on the possible trajectory or the fact that it may have flown for several more hours. Nor did they immediately brief that the onboard tracking system appeared to have been deliberately switched off.

The satellite information may only have been verified by the airline and the authorities at the point when they actually announced it, but I get the sense that within the team, there was so much complexity and uncertainty that no one was given the job of anticipating what the public and the media would want to know, rather they simply gave information as they had it.

Often it’s just as crucial to outline what you don’t yet know as it can save time dealing with speculation.

The airline and the authorities have been defensive and speculation rife

In a high profile situation like this, the media machine and the public crave information. Experts provide opinion and when there is a deficit of facts, speculation fills the void. From the stories of passengers who checked in but did not board to the pilot’s political affiliations, news channels, websites and social media have picked up and followed these trails. This has meant that most of the 20 media statements have had to include some form of denial or clarification.

This feels like a traditional briefing model that isn’t being sufficiently supported by more regular updates on the speculation but again, I suspect that in this instance, that task may have been like trying to slay the Hydra and the team is probably just not resourced to be across all of this.

There is no resolution

And this is the central tragedy of the situation. For the most part, Malaysia Airlines and the country’s government have adhered to the first of the ‘R’s of crisis aftermath – Regret. But as yet, the ‘Reason’ is still unknown and there can be no ‘Recovery’ without finding that plane.

Just as the BP crisis could not be resolved until the leak was plugged and the Chilean mine disaster could not have been deemed a success if the miners were not brought to safety, so too, the PR efforts of this crisis can have no resolution until more is known about what happened to the plane, why it happened and where it now is.

Because of this, I have more sympathy with the airline PR team than some. I see this as a tragic humanitarian disaster and possibly an operations and logistics fail but not necessarily a PR disaster. One thing is for certain though. This event will change the future of aviation disaster planning.

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