Communicating in a crisis: Is Malaysia Airlines doomed after MH17 disaster?

Tragedy has befallen Malaysia Airlines for the second time this year

I don’t think anyone wanted to believe those first tweets revealing that a passenger plane had crashed near the Russia-Ukraine border.

Certainly, it was with a growing sense of dread that I watched my Twitter feed fill with more and more sources reporting the incident until it was clear that rumour had indeed become fact. Tragedy had befallen the passengers of Malaysia Airlines for the second time this year.

After 24 hours, details confirming exactly what took place are scarce while theories are rife. One thing is clear: with the disappearance of MH370 still shrouded in mystery, this horrific event is a further blow to an airline already on its knees.

We often talk about the importance of context in crisis communications. What else is happening that may affect how you respond to an incident? Are there other events that may change how the media reports or stakeholders respond? For Malaysia Airlines, context is a huge factor.

Less than five months ago, the company was condemned by many for its poorly managed response to the disappearance of MH370. Now, under the harshest of spotlights, it must show that it has learnt the lessons of earlier this year and communicate appropriately with stakeholders who, in all honesty, are probably expecting it to fail.

While its response so far has been short of perfect – with questionable empathy in the early stages, it has demonstrated some of the fundamentals of communicating well in a crisis:

  • Speed – It’s vital that in this sort of situation you start to communicate early, even if you have little to say. Within an hour of losing contact with the flight, the airline confirmed this information via its Twitter feed.
  • Facts – Sticking with facts is critical in order to preserve your credibility as a source of information. With the ‘why?’ question understandably the focus of media attention, Malaysia Airlines communicated only what it knew. The first and subsequent tweets, plus media statements, avoided being drawn in to how the crash happened and focussed instead on the details of the flight, passengers and route.
  • Keep communicating – With media outlets and stakeholders desperate for news, an open channel for communication is essential. Malaysia Airlines has continued to communicate throughout the night via press conferences, Twitter updates and statements as well as establishing a phone line for relatives in both Amsterdam and Malaysia.

Going forward, the communications focus for Malaysia Airlines should remain on providing regular updates and information. It must communicate with genuine sympathy and care for those who have lost loved ones.

Over the coming months, its attention will need to shift to rebuilding a shattered reputation. How successful this will be only time will tell. We have seen other brands fail to come back from much less. It will be a long and slow journey to regain the trust that people place in an airline when they step on board. For some, no matter what the airline says or does, that may never return.

Alex Johnson is a consultant at Insignia Communications. You can follow her on Twitter @Alex_Insignia.

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