Crisis experts: Malaysia Airlines had to respond where news is breaking - on Twitter

The airline's decision to go to social media first with what little information it had is a sign of the times and an "appropriate" tactic, say crisis comms experts.

A video from a civilian on the ground captured the crash scene.
A video from a civilian on the ground captured the crash scene.

Comms experts who spoke with PRWeek largely supported Malaysia Airlines’ decision to make its first public statement on Flight MH17, reportedly shot down over Eastern Ukraine killing all 295 people on board, on social media. Yet many acknowledged its drawbacks, as well.

Because the crash set off a fluid, fast-moving story, trying to "stay with it or stay in front of it" is important for the airline, says Bob Chlopak, founding partner of CLS Strategies. He adds that it is particularly important after its reputation took a hit following the disappearance of Flight MH370 earlier this year.

"They were appropriately cautious with their first tweet because I don’t think anyone really knew what had happened at that time," he says.

The airline’s decision to go to social media first with what little information it had is a sign of the times, notes John Hellerman, cofounder of Hellerman Baretz Communications.

"Twitter is the platform for breaking and trending news, and while several other options would have been equally appropriate to announce and reply to this tragedy, the airline was being entirely reasonable by communicating about it on Twitter," he explains.

Most communications experts PRWeek spoke to say the speed media now operates forces the hand of an airline in this situation. Yet, like a traditional message to the media, a crisis tweet needs to stress the company will investigate the situation and show compassion, they note.

"News now tweets before it breaks on many other channels, so this would likely be the fastest way to get their message out there quickly," says Timothy Beecher, SVP, senior partner, and global co-chair of crisis management at FleishmanHillard. "There is confusion and speculation that make this a complex situation… so gathering and establishing the facts is going to be difficult but absolutely necessary."

In this case, the airline’s crisis communications plan is playing out in the middle of an international crisis. The Ukrainian government and separatists favoring a closer relationship with Russia have been fighting for months after protests forced the country’s pro-Russian president from power early this year.

After flight MH17 crashed on Thursday, both sides blamed each other for downing the plane. Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, wrote on Facebook that "terrorists shot down" the plane, while separatist leader Aleksander Borodai claimed it was the Ukrainian Air Force.

"In a situation like this where things are moving so fast and you need to fill a gap in information, starting with social is the best strategy, if that’s the quickest way to get information to your stakeholders," says Josh Morton, director of issues management and crisis response at Golin. "There is a lot of speculation, so a company needs to say what it’s doing to either solve the issue or communicate the information they do know."

He adds that "it’s important that the communications, first and foremost, have empathy, transparency, and a commitment to get to the bottom of what’s going on and make things right."

The quick response to Thursday’s incident also shows lessons learned from the loss of Flight MH370 in March, which was the focus of media attention – especially on cable news – for the weeks and months that followed. The attention to the previous incident also means the airline has a bigger following on social media.

"The airline’s communications efforts were widely panned, and rightfully so. Lessons should have been learned about timeliness and transparency that will guide how this incident is managed," says Russ Williams, SVP of crisis and issues management at Cohn & Wolfe. "The airline has a far more significant social media following that allows it to speak directly to media and industry influencers. Its social channels are more effective in managing crisis communications by virtue of the fact they’ve previously used them in this manner."

However, Ben LaBolt, founding partner of The Incite Agency and a former assistant press secretary at the White House, argues that because the airline had little information when it took to Twitter, it undermined its own plan.

"Putting a statement [like Malaysia Airlines did on Twitter] into the ether that provides really no information and answers no questions will not be seen as helpful guidance," he says.

Going forward, the airline will face numerous challenges, including how it positions itself just months after the disappearance of MH370. It must make clear that the two situations are different and that it is the victim in this case, notes Chlopak.

"The most important thing for the airline is not simply speed and taking advantage of social media, but to separate and differentiate what appears to have happened here from the past," he says. "We may never know what happened last time around, but some of that responsibility could lie with the Malaysia Airlines pilot or their aircraft. In this situation, it appears the airline was a victim of some kind of weapon, and they need to make that clear."

After the disappearance of Flight MH370, Malaysia Airlines was widely criticized for its outreach to victims’ families after reportedly notifying many by text message that the search for the missing plane was hopeless. This time, it will need to give the bereaved an easy way to contact the airline and coordinate with officials, notes LaBolt.

"The families will be looking to the airline for a direct line of contact and information as quickly as possible after the event," he says. "They also need to provide the public with the information they have and coordinate with government entities that may have fuller information available to release simultaneously to their customers and the public."

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