It has become a standard operation procedure to criticize the crisis communications efforts of the airline in the aftermath of aviation disasters, often for cause. But now that Malaysia Airlines gets criticized for its crisis communication regarding the still missing flight MH370, it seems inappropriate to me. Especially, as some allegations seem to mix up up the authority and responsibilities of the actors involved.
Patrick Meschenmoser (Frankfurt am Main)
Of course, there are textbook approaches to tackle an incident. But there is nothing like a textbook crisis. With the passengers’ families and friends in vain, some still hoping for a miracle, blaming the airline for bad crisis communications fosters the thought among the next of kin that the carrier is holding back information. The critics give the impression that the airline should be in total control of communication. Actually, it never is. This is just impossible. Yes, there are things to be improved and there will still be enough time to analyze which exactly. I am sure Malaysia Airlines will do so. And hopefully all other airlines will learn their lessons, too. So the intention of this article is not to focus on what has been managed well or badly so far. Let’s just take a short glance on what a disaster like MH370 means to an airline.
One of the most difficult challenges, and obviously the biggest one in this unique case, is to find out what really happened. Where and when? Who was onboard, who missed the flight? Was it really our aircraft? Even in the event of a crash at an airport there might be a time of uncertainty about which carrier is involved. Often, the media will point in the wrong direction at first. You have to screen a constantly growing stream of often conflicting information coming from internal sources, authorities, first responders, eye witnesses and the media. Verifying this information is most important and to shoot from the hip a really bad idea. An airline needs to establish itself as a credible source of facts. Imagine the pain a spokesperson would cause giving out false data regarding survivors, for example. Once you have fed families and media with faulty information, that’s it. Everything you are going to say from now on will be questioned.
Years ago there was something called “Golden Hour”, some 60 minutes you usually got after an accident to get your first statement out until news channels got their machinery up and running. That’s history. Today stories break within seconds. Citizen journalists with their ubiquitous smartphones cover events from T minus zero - often providing pictures in high definition. The affected airline gets blamed for lacking information right out of the blocks. Speculation generators in social media will be switched to override. Given the circumstances, Malaysia Airlines’ response came in time – they first had to be really sure the flight isn’t simply delayed due to a malfunction. The airline's communicators pointed out from the very first moment, that they mustn’t speculate. They quickly stopped inappropriate advertising, set-up a “dark site” bundling all confirmed information and have updated it some two dozen times so far.
Some criticize Malaysia Airlines for issuing conflicting information. To me, this is pretty unfair. While the airline never speculated on what happened to MH370, it had to constantly correct information that’s been prematurely issued by third parties: alleged ACARS messages, potential flight tracks, potential terrorists using stolen passports, fields of debris, you name it. The simple solution suggested by some experts: just liaise with all these stakeholders. Sounds good in theory. Malaysia Airlines would have to coordinate communications with two dozens of nations participating in the search and rescue operations, with Boeing and Rolls Royce, with civil aviation authorities and investigators of at least China, Malaysia and the US, with military institutions and criminal investigators, with the airports of origin and destination, with flight crew unions, air traffic control and last but not least its major shareholder: the Malaysian government. And this list is far from being complete. It’s a true liaison nightmare.
Of course every emergency plan needs to provide procedures to coordinate efforts with the most important stakeholders. A one voice policy is key for successful crisis communications. Stakeholder managers have to be established. But this time the number and nature of stakeholders is - mildly said - challenging. Having a short glance at the list, one can easily imagine that some of those are not likely to share information easily with the airline before going public.
Families & Friends
Pictures showing grieving families and friends of those onboard MH370 are the most staggering aspect in this tragedy. It is the responsibility of the airline to take care of relatives, not only from a moral point of view. In the US the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act frames the legal obligation to do so. Corresponding legislation is widespread across the globe. In the event of a major incident airlines should immediately set-up reception centers at the airport for meeters and greeters and, at a later stage, a so called family assistance center in a hotel nearby. These centers shall provide the passengers’ next of kin with a focal point to receive updates, get accommodated and share their sorrow. The airline dispatches family assistance teams, usually volunteering employees, to assist the families on a very individual basis. Another purpose of such facilities is to shield the relatives from the media if they wish so. This of course is a highly demanding operation and needs detailed planning and training prior to a crisis. If the majority of the families can be expected at the airlines’ home base, it can rely on its own infrastructure and personnel. If not, like in case of MH370 when the majority of relatives showed up at Beijing, the carrier needs to refer to external resources. It might be difficult to get these structures up and running as the airline is just one of many customers at the respective airport. And even with the best infrastructure, in a situation like this with the aircraft missing and almost no confirmed facts at hand, grieving families will – understandably – always step up accusing the airline of holding back information. They long for certainty. A certainty no one is able to provide at the moment. Criticizing the airline’s information policy, often not taking into account the unique circumstances, only fuels that fire. It might be right to put pressure on those responsible. But you should aim in the right direction.
Granted: each airline has to do its homework. It has to be prepared for the worst case. Emergency plans have to be adapted to new developments like the widespread use of social media. But some of the parameters contributing to the perfect crisis communications storm are far from a carrier’s influence. And it doesn’t really help that many journalists don’t know about procedures. In many cases national law strictly regulates what an airline may say or not. And this is for a reason. Good crisis communication is not about just feeding the beast. It is about being present and available providing facts, not speculation or a prime time show. This might not seem to pay off immediately. The damage resulting from speculating and giving out faulty information would be way bigger, though. The NTSB brilliantly summarizes that in a rule of thumb: “What could have been said about a flight before it crashed, can also be said afterwards - nothing else.” In other words: Stick to the facts. Regarding MH370 there are hardly any. It is an unprecedented situation. Being prepared is not someting you have achieved at some point. It is a perpetual process.