Tragedy turns into a PR advantage for Australia

Canberra is not used to receiving good press in Asia. But the search for MH 370 shows that can change.

The disappearance of flight MH 370 was a moment of great tragedy. But Australia has seized the moment and converted the disaster into something of a PR coup. On Thursday (3 Apr) the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak thanked his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott for expending the effort and resources to find the remnants of the lost plane, which experts conclude, went down in the middle of the Indian Ocean several hundreds of kilometers off the coast of western Australia. "I would like to sincerely thank Australia for all they have done, and are doing, to find the plane," he said in a press conference. "At this difficult time Australia has proven to be an invaluable friend," he said. That gesture by the leader of an influential Muslim-majority state has proved to be an exceptional PR win for Australia and may have burnished its image in Asia, at least, in the short term.

"Prime Minister Tony Abbott saw the importance of fast and decisive leadership communication. He took personal control, instructing the defence forces to engage with their Malaysian and regional counterparts to help find the plane, and to get moving immediately. This was also communicated to the media leaving no doubt that this mission was a top priority," said Glen Frost, Editor of the Sydney-based PR Report.  "Australia’s prompt action was (kindly) recognised by the media in countries like Malaysia, with a subsequent and unintended boost of goodwill between the two nations," he said.  Scott Pettet, Vice President, APAC, Lewis PR agrees. "Australia’s standing within the region seems to have improved but it is regrettable that it has taken a disaster for it to have happened. "

"Abbott was previously a journalist, so he understands the important role the media has in informing the public," explained Frost. "In addition, his Chief Of Staff, Peta Credlin, was a senior PR professional before working in politics. They make a formidable team."

Canberra is not used to receiving a particularly good press in Asia where it is often portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as ‘racist’ and a ‘bully’. Anti-Australian protests have erupted in Asian capitals on various occasions. In 2013, Australia’s relations with its neighbours suffered a serious blow after a scandal implicated its intelligence agencies of tapping the phones of Indonesian and Malaysian ministers. More recently, in February, Canberra was forced to submit an official apology to Jakarta after it was revealed that Royal Australian Navy and Customs ships had crossed into Indonesian territorial waters while carrying out what it called were "border protection operations".

Residents and environmental campaigners in Malaysia have carried out demonstrations in 2012 against Australia’s Lynas Corporation over the construction of a US$230m rare earth plant near the leafy eastern coastal city of Kuantan. But perhaps the worst public relations crisis that Australia faced was in 2009 when an Indian student in Melbourne was killed after being brutally beaten by a gang of thugs. Protests and anti-Australia rallies swept across India. "(Indian) students thought twice about applying to Australian universities and tourists began considering other destinations," recalls Jaideep Shergill, CEO India, MSL Group. A subsequent Indian Government investigation concluded that of 152 reported assaults against Indian students in Australia that year, 23 had "racial overtones". Although relations have improved since then the assaults on Indian students scarred Australia’s reputation in India and continues to cast a long shadow despite decades of otherwise warm and mostly sporty relations (both are cricket playing nations).  The country’s image is particularly negative among the Muslims across the region many of who resent its military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared on 8 March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. Australia is leading international efforts to locate the debris and retrieve the elusive ‘black box’ flight recorder, which may hold the clue to what went wrong with the ill fated flight. Its military planes and ships have been scouring the southern Indian Ocean, where the jet is believed to have crashed – a vast area covering 223,000 square kilometers. Prime Minister Razak toured the military base in Perth, which is being used as a staging post in the hunt for Flight MH370. Retired Australian air chief marshal Angus Houston, who is heading a new coordination centre in the city, told PM Najib "Australia is doing everything it can" to track down the missing jet. He described Malaysia and Australia as "good mates". On Monday (7 Apr) a Royal Australian navy ship detected underwater signals, which have been described as the "most promising lead" yet in the month-old hunt. Australia's search efforts have been widely praised. "No words can express our gratitude," posted one Julia Abdul Hamid on PM Najib’s official Facebook page. "Thank you...thank you and thousand more (sic) thanks to the government of Australia," said another.  The plaudits come at time when Australia had come under global media spotlight for its treatment of Asian asylum seekers and a decidedly right wing shift in domestic politics.

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