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Prior to 2014, the airline had one of the world’s best safety records. It had suffered just two fatal accidents in 68 years of operation (including a hijacking). The company’s shares fell 20% following the disappearance of Flight 370, having already fallen by 80% over the previous five years. The loss of another jet four months later, shot down over Ukraine caused the Malaysia government to fully nationalise the airline.
There were many valid criticisms of Malaysia Airlines’ handling of the crisis.
It took five hours to confirm it had lost contact with the plane. This established the early media narrative that the main players were not forthcoming about what they knew. The airline book-ended its’ handling of the crisis by using a text message – among other communication channels - to alert the victims’ families that the plane was lost and all aboard were dead. But this alone does not explain why its reputation has suffered so much. After all, the airline seems likely to have been a victim of someone else’s malevolent actions.
Much media attention throughout the first three weeks of the crisis was on the Malaysian government’s mishandling of the crisis. And maybe that’s the central issue and this is where the PR community can draw lessons. The Malaysian government, the military and other third parties became involved and they drowned out the airline’s own communications.
In a multi-agency crisis, establishing primacy of communication – one voice – and aligned messages are vital. In the case of MH370, when it became a search operation, primacy fell to the government. And most of the communication errors came from the government and its agencies that it failed to co-ordinate effectively. As the reputation of the government for competence fell, so Malaysia Airlines was dragged down by its partner.
Seeing this, you would imagine that the airline would want to distance itself or communicate different messages. But in this case the government was the majority shareholder in the airline and unlikely to tolerate a differentiated narrative that would make it look worse.
So the airline knuckled down to managing that which it could control. It focused on supporting the families, even if it didn’t always get it right. It is difficult to see what else they could reasonably do and aviation experts agree that this should be an airline’s priority after a crash.
You need to be aware of how people behave during crisis.
Research (see Bharosa, Lee & Janssen, 2009) has shown that while individuals are aware of the need for information sharing and coordination during crisis, they find themselves faced with a lack of incentives at institutional, organisational and individual levels for doing so. Individuals are concerned with obtaining information from others rather than providing their information to others (if they are able to identify relevant information in the first place while under pressure).
As ever, preparation is key.
The unthinkable happens. You need to analyse and understand human and organisational obstacles to effective multi-agency working and then plan, train and exercise regularly with multiple partners.