MALAYSIA: Malaysia Airlines’ main priority is assisting victims’ relatives after its passenger plane MH17 was reportedly shot down by a surface-to-air missile in Ukraine near the Russian border earlier this month.
The airline tapped UK PR agency Perowne Charles Communications to handle crisis communications surrounding the downed flight, which was carrying 298 people and flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, said the firm’s founder and CEO Paul Charles. The agency has been assisting Malaysia Airlines with consumer relations in the UK and Ireland since 2012.
"Malaysia Airlines’ focus in the short-term is on helping relatives of those affected by the recent tragedies, as well as ensuring we provide very good service to the 50,000-plus passengers the airline carries each day," said Charles.
As part of its efforts, the airline has granted immediate financial assistance of $5,000 to each victim's next-of-kin, and has offered to fly relatives to "Amsterdam or wherever appropriate to be able to continue the grieving process," he explained. He added that Malaysia Airlines is in direct contact with relatives most days or "as much as they would like for the airline to be in contact."
In addition, Malaysia Airlines has over 100 caregivers providing victims’ families with support and counsel.
"There is a very thorough process in place to help victims’ families, and this is an ongoing process, dependent on what the relatives need," Charles said. "The relatives are, from what I understand, very appreciative of the support that has been given."
The airline is not, however, flying relatives to the scene of the crash due to the fact that there is "so much confusion" and it is still a "war zone," he explained.
In terms of customer communications, Malaysia Airlines put a refund policy in place for any ticket holders for flights following the tragedy, giving them a week to get a refund, if they wanted one.
"Very few people have cancelled their flights," Charles said. "That’s a sign that people do trust the airline."
Aside from ensuring that Malaysia Airlines is "seen to be" totally focused on victims’ relatives, PCC wants the media and members of the general public to understand that the airline is in a financially good position and is well-regarded in the industry, he said.
The MH17 incident was a "tragic accident, which could have happened to any other airlines in the area at the same time," said Charles.
A key part of PCC’s corporate reputation strategy for Malaysia Airlines is focused on spreading the message that only one authoritative body should decide where airlines can and cannot fly.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), comprised of aviation chiefs, including execs from Malaysia Airlines, is convening on Tuesday in Montreal to discuss this matter.
"At the moment, several agencies or governments are responsible for giving out information about where planes are allowed to fly," said Charles. "Malaysia Airlines was flying in an area that was not restricted, that was perfectly safe and legal, and that all authorities had said was fine to fly in, so it didn’t do anything wrong."
The Malaysian government, the airline’s majority stakeholder, kicked off a strategic review this week that will potentially restructure the airline’s routes and expand outsourcing to increase profitability.
The review is expected to consider allowing more private investors to hold shares in the company.
Charles could not confirm if the review would result in a rebrand for the airline.
"The government review into the future ownership structure of Malaysia Airlines is ongoing," he said. "That review will report back in due course and Malaysia Airlines will work with the government on the findings."
Charles added that Malaysia Airlines will "emerge stronger" as a result of the review.
Malaysia Airlines is basing its comms operation out of Kuala Lumpur and Amsterdam, where the company’s European SVP Huib Gorter is based. Gorter is acting as its main spokesperson.
When asked about a potential rebrand, a Malaysia Airlines spokesperson told PRWeek: "We are unable to respond on brand matters as we are focused on MH17 for the time being."
In March, Malaysia Airlines engaged Ketchum to provide advice and media support one week after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – due to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing –disappeared. The firm said at the time that it was not working with the Malaysian government.
Ketchum representatives did not return calls and emails seeking comment. It was not immediately clear if the agency is still working with Malaysia Airlines.
Charles said PCC is the only PR firm assisting the airline with crisis comms around its most recent incident.