How mystery of flight MH370 challenged British satellite firm's comms team

The small communications team at Inmarsat, the satellite operator that has been helping to piece together the course of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, has been working up to 19 hours a day to keep up with media interest in the story.

Inmarsat: satellite data helping search for MH370
Inmarsat: satellite data helping search for MH370

The company became part of the story when it provided data from its satellites in the days after the plane's disappearance, including the information the Malaysian government used last week to notify relatives that the plane was definitively lost in the remote Southern Indian Ocean – although the wreckage is yet to be found.

Inmarsat’s response has been largely handled by a communications team of two: vice-president, external affairs and marketing communications Chris McLaughlin, and head of corporate communications Jonathan Sinnatt.

"It has been a breaking process involving multiple countries and time zones and the political aspect has never been far off," said McLaughlin, adding they have been working 19-hour days to handle a challenge he described as "unrelenting".

The worldwide interest has been unlike anything Inmarsat has encountered before, while the situation did not fall into the type of crisis scenarios it has planned for, such as the explosion of one of the rockets used to put its satellites into orbit.

There have been more than 30,000 articles online alone, including top-tier dailies in all G20 countries according to McLaughlin, and the company had to put up an additional server for its website to deal with increased traffic. It also used Twitter for the first time.

McLaughlin said the communications approach was based on sticking to the facts and using a single spokesman.

"We decided very quickly I would be the front guy," he said. "So we had a single person giving the same message rather than multiple spokespeople. Jonathan acted as the gatekeeper. I’ve done constant interviews, and in a day there might have been 300 more we could have engaged with."

To get up to speed, he had multiple meetings with Inmarsat's technical team: "We knew the story would jump around the business and we’ve had to draw together a lot of skills."

McLaughlin had "reality check calls" with Inmarsat’s corporate PR agency Brunswick, appointed at the end of last year, and the agency gave advice, tested him and helped him rehearse for interviews.

The company has also been assisted by its other agencies around the world, such as Rice Communications in Singapore, which helped monitor media in the region.

The approach was to stick to the facts, explaining them simply and clearly. As McLaughlin put it: "We can’t judge, we won’t criticise."

"We’ve been noted for doing things in a sensible and non-sensationalist way," he said. "We’ve tried to be thoughtful and helpful, telling people very simply why we’ve done what we’ve done. Also we’ve tried to ensure we don’t get out ahead of the story. We don’t want to be the story."

Government relations has been another aspect of the challenge and channels have been opened with the relevant departments in the governments involved. Inmarsat has briefed them throughout and has copied them into all communications, and direct lines have recently been added.

"We’ve had a lot of emails from competitors praising us, saying we’re making the satellite industry look professional," he said.

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