The mystery of the missing MH370 has thrown Malaysia into the international limelight, calling into question its management of the situation.
OVER the past week, Malaysia’s public image has taken a battering internationally over its handling of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared from commercial air traffic control radar at 1.30am on March 8 and vanished.
At first, when news of the missing plane with 239 (including 12 crew) on board flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing broke, there was the usual shock, concern and hope of finding it – or least the debris.
But day after day, with no sign of the plane or debris, no clues or answers, and lack of information coupled with conflicting statements by the Malaysian authorities, the mood turned to anger, ridicule and frustration.
As the bizarre scenario unfolded day by day, of the flight possibly making a turn back, of the transponder possibly being deliberately switched off, and of the plane being diverted and flown towards the Indian Ocean, a more complex picture than what was initially thought started to emerge.
It took a week before Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was finally able to confirm for a fact yesterday that the transponder of the Boeing 777 aircraft had indeed been deliberately switched off and the plane was intentionally steered away from its original flight path by someone on board.
Was Malaysia right in the early days to give out only drips of information as it managed the crisis until it got the real facts? That certainly did not stop speculation and confusion.
Crisis expert Vivian Lines, chairman of Asia Pacific Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says that in crisis training exercises a decade ago, the first 24 hours are often referred to as a “Golden Hour” because the airline could use the time to assemble its teams, understand the situation and then control the initial statement to the media.
“Today, with the immediacy of social media, a ‘Golden Hour’ has become a ‘Golden Nanosecond’,” he says.
“When Asiana flight 214 crashed upon landing in San Francisco last year, there were pictures on Twitter in less than a minute and the airline was never able to get ahead of the news.
“Malaysia Airlines was fortunate. Management had the ability to control that first announcement. There was no burning wreckage to be tweeted around the world. While they had to wait to see if the flight would reappear on radar or notification would come that it had landed somewhere, they could use the time wisely, presumably to gather their crisis teams and plan for whatever announcement they needed to make.”
When the first announcement created an immediate viral response, MAS was ready, he says.
“Their web blacksite was activated and they were prepared for the storm of media, anguished relatives, and netizen journalists that surround any major incident.
“A total of six statements were issued during the course of Saturday and, in many ways, this was a well-executed communications response backed up with actions designed to respond to the needs of relatives.”
However, says Lines, that initial success faded quickly as soon as it became clear that the aircraft could not easily be found.
With frustration mounting along with the desire for information, it was then left to multiple people to make statements to the media.
“Much of this conflicted, adding to the frustration, hurting the credibility of the response effort and creating speculation and multiple side stories,” he says.
“With little hard news to report, there was an information vacuum as we have never seen before in this age of constant noise and 24/7 viral news feeds.”
One of Australia’s top crisis management experts, Michael Smith, believes that while MAS’ response in the first two days was excellent, all that fell apart when several agencies became involved in the messaging and there was no consistent voice.
“There were leaks and theories – all of which were magnified by the media which was starving for any information. The situation was made worse because there was no new information to report. Different agencies seemed to be pushing different agendas,” says Smith from Inside PR.
Risk and crisis communication expert Dr Hamish McLean points out that in a crisis, the blame game starts quickly, sometimes within 48 hours, and this is driven by misinformation, the lack of facts and the need to “find who is responsible”.
There is also tremendous pressure for information from families, politicians, media and the public, he says. But if there are too many official voices, and if information is released before facts are known, this only leads to confusion.
“The last thing MAS needs is for officials to join in the speculation by responding prematurely to the ‘what if’ questions. This needs to be balanced, of course, with the need to provide timely information”, which is somewhat like a tightrope situation in a crisis with no end in sight.
He stresses that the key here is for MAS and the authorities to “speak with one voice”.
“By one voice, you can have different spokespeople but the messages must not conflict. Ideally, the number of spokespeople should be limited,” says Dr McLean, who is a lecturer at Griffith University, Australia.
“There should be extensive coordination behind the scenes. Questions from the media must be anticipated and responses agreed before media conferences are held or information is provided.
“Effective crisis management is all about coordinated, timely and factual information.
“Although the media want to hear from various agencies and officials, having too many representatives giving information is not always the best approach,” he shares.
Lines adds that it helps to make good use of all communication channels.
“Making the full press conference available on-line, streaming it live or providing teleconference facilities for international media or bloggers is quite common.
“A regular blog or vlog from the CEO during the incident also demonstrates care and concern and enables the airline to humanise what actions are being taken.”
In today’s digital age, Dr McLean points out that social media drives speculation and rumours with “lightning speed”.
“Without the facts, traditional media is reporting social media commentary, which is adding to speculation and placing MAS and the authorities under more pressure,” he notes.
Concurring, Smith says social media makes it even more difficult to handle a crisis because there are many wild and unfair and untrue postings, which raises the anger level among families and stakeholders.
“Take control early and maintain consistent messages from the one place. Do not allow multiple agencies to confuse the messaging,” he advises.
Touching on the bushfires in Australia, Smith says it is common in crisis situations for people to suspect that the government is hiding something unless the prime authority, which is the government, takes controls and appoints an overall leader for the crisis response, including communications.
And to be effective in the role, Lines says that a spokesperson needs the seniority and gravitas to humanise the situation with concern and empathy, while managing what is said, to ensure consistency and accuracy.
“In the absence of an aircraft, the lack of a strongly coordinated and accurate communications response became the global story.
“This has probably impacted more on Malaysia’s image than that of MAS, hurting both credibility and professionalism,” he says.
It was only when acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein stepped up to take charge of the press conferences from Wednesday that “greater clarity and consistency started coming through”, he says.
One of the things to bear in mind is how unforgiving a crisis can be.
Dr McLean says people judge an organisation in a crisis within the first 48 hours based on what they say and what they do.
“MAS is in a very difficult position because there are so many unknowns. A lack of information inevitably intensifies the ‘blame game’.
“MAS must continue to hold the communications agenda. This crisis is unprecedented – this is a worst-case scenario and will rewrite crisis management for the aviation industry.”
He notes too that in the thick of the “blame game”, with people demanding information that is not available and even if MAS is doing everything to help the families, for some that will never be enough in such distressing and emotional circumstances.
“MAS must remain very focused on families. A key point is that they must inform families of updates before the media. There is nothing worse than distressed families finding out information in the media.
“When this happens, they feel they are being kept in the dark, not trusted or valued. This leaves an impression that the organisation cares more about the media than the families, despite all the assurances and empathetic messages.”
But what should MAS do if it all points to a hijacking or foul play but they can’t be certain because the aircraft is still missing and no demands have been made? Do they tell affected family members?
“Wait for facts. Don’t speculate. The media will do that,” says Lines.
In the case of the missing MH370, it has already been said that nothing is off the table and all aspects are being looked into, he says.
“Address it that way. Be open. Say ‘we continue to explore every avenue’. The most important thing is to establish how this happened so that we can explain this to the relatives and friends who need and deserve an explanation.”
For Lines, it is clear that for Malaysia there is a need for better planning of communications across departments and ministries, with a clear communications protocol on who should speak, on what and when.
Once MH370 is located, he says, there won’t be an information vacuum any longer but just a massive pent-up need for closure on the part of many relatives, the need to identify what went wrong, a demand for accountability, and the need to rebuild brand and reputation.
“That is the time when effective communication will really be critical and the help of outside professionals is required.”
Lines believes airlines would most surely be revisiting their crisis communication protocols and doubling their training efforts while countries would be reviewing how they would have handled a similar event if it was to happen to their national carrier.
Dr McLean says the crisis presents an opportunity to rewrite the book on crisis management.
“Every country – and the aviation industry – can learn from this event. No one is immune from aircraft incidents such as this.
“A key lesson for MAS is to work hard on the lessons from this event and avoid what many other organisations have done – internal finger-pointing to wipe the slate clean.”