We are now some 23 days into the Malaysian Air saga. The families continue to suffer, and the media continue running wild with oft-times strange theories but no facts.
This is a communicator’s nightmare.
How does an organization deal with a situation in which no hard information is available, and conspiracy theories abound, fueled by a seemingly crazed media bent more on achieving ratings than on dealing with facts in a tactful way given the suffering families and loved ones are going through?
There is no doubt but that this is a tough situation. Tough situations are what all organizations should be ready to face at any time.
In this case, Malaysian Airlines seems to have been caught wanting.
The Malaysian Airlines authorities have proven unequal to the task at hand in some part due to their own bungling, and in some part not.
There is nothing much the airline can say without proof of what happened – and at this stage, we still don’t know if the passengers are alive (and where), or dead (and how).
Since the search is out of their hands, they rely on the governments running the search for information and updates. The constant speculation by the media (CNN is an excellent example) is running wild, and posing questions that cannot be answered, but that have the families of the victims angry and vocal.
The airline does not seem to have thought out its communications plan in advance of the crisis. Any airline must always be prepared to act quickly in a worst-case scenario, and must have its communications plans and strategies up to date and moving forward. The airlines must know how to effectively deal with grieving families and the media, and how to balance realism with concern.
The Malaysian Government seems to have been playing coy with certain facts. The Prime Minister has played a major public role in the management of this crisis, speaking to the media on several occasions, speculating, yet bringing little hard news at all (indeed, announcing that the plane and all souls aboard had been lost at sea, with no corroborating evidence.). This has understandably exacerbated their relationship with the victims of the crisis – the families of those on board the flight.
Malaysian society is caught in the grips of a political situation that pits the government against the opposition leader (Ahmad Ibrahim, who has been sentenced to a prison term for sodomy). Much has been made about the fact that the pilot seems to have been a supporter of the jailed opposition leader, and that the co-pilot has memorized the Koran – without a shred of evidence to point at any responsibility. Guilt by association is de facto guilt, and will be remembered long after the sunsets on this tragic episode. Accusations are front-page news, subsequent retractions are buried if at all reported.
All in all, a dog’s breakfast from which all airlines and governments must learn for future reference.
There are no easy answers, but the principles of crisis communications stand:
- Always have one spokesperson through whom all information is channeled
- Always have a strategy in place, practice it often before a crisis arises, and be ready to modify it as the situation develops
- Always ensure you provide all of the information available at any given time, and avoid any speculation at all costs, regardless of media or public pressure to do otherwise
- Don’t give in to pressure from the media, but be aware of the condition of your victims and underscore at all times what it is you are doing for them to ease their plight.
Most importantly, the media should play a serious role in all of this. CNN’s 24/7 speculation and detailed analysis of the wildest of theories does not behoove a serious media outlet. Ratings should not come at the expense of the suffering of family victims subjected to wild speculation and conjecture about the fate of the loved ones without a shred of evidence.
However, this recommended course of action will not likely be adopted by the media, whose principal objective is to raise ratings and hence revenue rather than report news and events seriously and responsibly.
It is a shame that the network that invented 24/7 global news coverage with such great journalists as Bernard Shaw and Christiane Amanpour should decide to lower the bar rather than raise it.
All in all, this has been a sorry spectacle indeed, and I fear it is the families of the victims who are and will pay the highest price.
Eduardo del Buey
Crosshairs Communications Ltd.