MH17 reconstruction won't further damage Malaysia Airlines' image

Photos of reconstructed plane bring tragedy back into public eye one year on, but comms specialists divided over why the images will not cause any damage

Debris from the MH17 plane. The Dutch investigators report was released this week  (Denis Kornilov)
Debris from the MH17 plane. The Dutch investigators report was released this week (Denis Kornilov)

The trials of Malaysia Airlines returned to the front pages around the world yesterday, but PR executives say the reputational harm of seeing new images of the reconstructed MH17 plane will be limited.

On Tuesday, Dutch investigators released their report regarding the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukrainian skies in July 2014, killing 298 passengers and crew. Officials concluded a Russian-built Buk missile exploded just outside the plane’s cockpit.

Global coverage of the announcement was combined with new images of the rebuilt plane, which showed the trademark red and blue stripes of Malaysia Airlines, now rebranded Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB).

In fact, according to The Edge Financial Daily, MAB is getting ready to unveil its new name, logo and aircraft livery next month in an attempt to once and for all put the negative reputation of Malaysia Airlines behind it. 

The carrier is reported to be working with Prophet on the total re-brand and is looking to reinvent itself following the two tragedies of the MH17 and MH370 planes. 

With the MH17 pictures dominating the media, commentators say it will certainly be a reminder of the terrible event, but that it will not affect MAB’s ongoing efforts to rehabilitate its brand.

Nathan Scholz, a crisis comms specialist at Cole Lawson Communications, told PRWeek that unfortunately, reputation-wise the damage has already been done.

"This week’s confronting images of the MH17 aircraft wreckage will undoubtedly remind many of the tragedy, but Malaysia Airline’s brand has been so damaged that any mention of the name automatically causes audiences to remember the two accidents," he said.

"The connection between Pan Am and Lockerbie has outlasted the airline by more than 20 years and, given the peculiarities of the two Malaysia Airline crashes, it’s likely this will be the same for the Malaysia Airline brand, if not the airline itself."

However, Charles Lankester, Ruder Finn’s senior vice president of reputation management in APAC, said the photos will not have any material effect on MAB’s future re-launching efforts because people understand that the loss of MH17 was a criminal act and nothing to do with anything the airline did.

"A tragedy for those on board, and their families, but the airline was a victim. People will understand that," he told PRWeek.

Lankester said it is interesting that MAB was a first mover in re-routing its aircraft away from the conflict-ridden Caspian Sea area.

"This is a welcome, responsible move and maybe offers a glimmer of hope about what the ‘new’ MAB leadership under CEO Christoph Mueller might be trying to build: an airline Malaysia can be proud of and that people choose to fly," he said.

"What will be vital for the future of MAB is it realizes we live in a real-time, global communications environment in both good times and bad. The management must build this into their planning for the future."

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