MH370 debris debacle: Airline and government communications 'devoid of empathy and heart'

PR pros slam those involved for mixed messaging, lacking compassion and failing to go back to basics

Former Malaysian transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein faces reporters in Beijing last year
Former Malaysian transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein faces reporters in Beijing last year

PR experts have delivered a withering assessment of the comms from Malaysia Airlines and the country’s government for "dreadfully serving" the relatives of those missing on board on MH370 following the discovery of aircraft debris two weeks ago.

The flight vanished at night over the South China Sea last March, while travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. The majority of the passengers were from China.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said last week that the debris was from the missing flight, telling reporters: "Today, 515 days since the plane disappeared, it is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you an international team of experts have conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris found on Reunion Island is indeed from MH370."

However, French investigators have refused to confirm the debris is from MH370, saying at this stage they can only confirm it is from a Boeing 777.

The mixed messages have merely served to stoke media speculation and extend the anguish of the relatives involved, crisis comms professionals told PRWeek Asia.

"One word describes the entire management of Malaysia Airlines’ communications surrounding MH370: appalling," said Charles Lankester, SVP of reputation management at Ruder Finn Asia. "The recent discovery of a possible part of the missing Boeing 777 MH370 in Reunion may bring a shred of hope for some kind of closure to the poor relatives, but they have been dreadfully served by Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian Government's communications."

He said the PM’s press conference was clearly rushed and delivered to a largely empty room, suggesting a theatrical haste to get the news out.

"The Malaysian comms strategy has clearly annoyed the French investigators, who have been using clipped, terse language in their statements," Lankester added. "Yes, multiple organisations make this exercise very complex. But the Malaysian 'debris find' comms strategy looks very much like grandstanding at best, and misdirection from other domestic controversies at worst."

Nijab has recently been under intense pressure over the 1MDB state investment fund scandal.

Crisis comms specialist Nathan Scholz , a senior consultant with Cole Lawson Communications in Brisbane, said incorrect and contradictory information was continuing to damage the relationship between the airline and its passengers.

"Speculation and incorrect information from multiple spokespeople, including from government members, have served to damage the relationship between the airline and the public," he said. "Most recently this has included the ‘confirmation’ that window parts and seating has been discovered and linked to the missing aircraft. This is not solely the responsibility of Malaysia Airlines, but also those aiming to speak on its behalf and claiming to act in its best interest."

When responding to a crisis, companies must go back to the basics, Scholz added. "Be swift, open, and accurate in your communications, and make sure those most affected by the crisis hear from you first," he said. "That means reaching out to family members in person, before they hear from a journalist. And when speculation and misinformation is linked to your brand, be prompt and authoritative in setting the record straight."

Patrick Hillmann, vice president at Levick, said the airline had been ill-equipped to deal with the crisis from the outset: "Flight MH370 became a global cultural event, similar to the Hindenburg disaster, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the death of Princess Diana," he said. "Malaysian Airlines was not prepared to manage this type of global event," he said.

However, both he and Lankester criticized how the airline had responded since, claiming it had exacerbated the situation and prolonged media coverage.

"For one, it seems to have been a mistake to inform the victims’ family members by text and then continue to hold onsite daily briefings for weeks on end," Hillmann said. "This prolonged the agony and suffering of the victims’ families and created additional fodder for media, who practiced little restraint in exploiting that suffering."

Lankester added: "This has always been a process devoid of empathy and heart. The best evidence? A 2014 message from the airline stating that they were retiring the MH370 flight code as a respect to the 'pax'. These are people, not 'pax'. This thoughtless use of airline jargon speaks volumes about its overall attitude toward the communications aspect of this tragedy: a nuisance and an exercise in administration. This was swiftly followed by the inept, grossly insensitive ‘bucket list’ promotion in December. Fast-forward to today and the only word to describe the current communications strategy from the government is 'murky'."

Lankester said a statement from the Chinese government, quoted in CNBC last week, best defined how those involved in the search feel about the Malaysian management of this tragedy: "China's foreign ministry on Thursday warned Malaysia not to lessen the intensity of its search for MH370, now that some wreckage had been recovered," the statement read. "Well said," Lankester added. "The airline and the Malaysian authorities need to be kept under a bright, international spotlight until real answers have been found."

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