MH370 One Year On: A Lesson in Crisis Management
Flight MH370: current status, missing, last seen, 8th of March 2014.
One year has passed since 200 passengers and crew-members disappeared whilst on a routine flight path across the South China Sea on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
It should have been as simple as that, a routine flight, operated by a trusted flag carrier, Malaysia Airlines.
Yet no traces of MH370 have been found since search efforts expanded globally for the aircraft, involving multitudes of organisations, both civil, defence and private. The search for Flight MH370 is now reported to be the most expensive in aviation history. Flight MH370 though is still no closer to being found after 365 days of unsuccessful search efforts across the globe. This ill-fated incident is like no aviation crisis ever seen before.
Image from CNN
So how did Malaysia Airlines respond to the disappearance of flight MH370?
Malaysia Airlines were quick to establish a crisis communications home base for consumers to access through the Malaysia Airlines website. This website became the point of reference for any news on flight MH370 and is still used today to distribute MH370 information, press releases and developments to consumers.
In addition Malaysia Airlines utilised Facebook and Twitter as social media platforms to distribute quick, honest and succinct updates to the broad public audience. Both these communication forums were complemented by sincere and compassionate communication from both the Malaysia Airlines senior staff members speaking on behalf of the entire company, with the Malaysia Airlines Public Relations team forming the content.
Malaysia Airlines followed the book in their response to the MH370 disappearance. They expressed remorse through their communication platforms, remained non-committal over responsibility until the outcome of MH370 was determined, and attempted to remediate the situation as best as possible by assisting the families of those involved in the unprecedented disaster through the development of a Family Support Centre.
Finally on January 29th this year Malaysia Airlines declared flight MH370 to be assumed missing in the Southern Indian Ocean and all passengers and crew presumed deceased. Officially recognising the loss of Flight MH370 allowed Malaysia Airlines to begin compensation processes for families and next of kin of those lives lost. This decision to declare the outcome of Flight MH370 also reassured the public that responsibility will be taken, both for the lives of passengers and the fate of the aircraft. The search for flight MH370 remains a major priority for Malaysia Airlines and governments assisting in the search.
U.S. Navy assists in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – Image by Official U.S. Navy
After a year of crisis management though, one begins to wonder, has this been enough? Should Malaysia Airlines have followed the book so closely? Or could the situation have been managed better?
To put it simply, yes, it could have. Malaysia Airlines could have coordinated and undertaken a more coherent management of this aviation crisis. In stating this though, it is important to note that aviation crisis management has its systems of informing authorities, organising search and rescue teams, contacting next of kin etc.
Malaysia Airlines did follow these protocols but in a situation like the disappearance of Flight MH370, timing is everything. Malaysia Airlines did respond in a timely matter, addressing the public through a series of press releases; 6 statements in the first 24 hours of Flight MH370 going missing.
What each of these statements lacked though was full disclosure. Each media release from Malaysia Airlines only contained the information they knew about, which was little to nothing. What was missing from these press releases was Malaysia Airlines’ knowledge on the whereabouts of Flight MH370. This was Malaysia Airlines’ first fault, not being fully honest and failing to fully disclose the unsurety of the event and the full nature of Flight MH370’s disappearance.
In a situation where everyone wanted answers but none could be given, Malaysia Airlines continued distributing the information that they knew about, but never admitted to knowing anything more. For family members this would have been unbearable. Honesty from Malaysia Airlines would have communicated more than relaying simple details that gave no clues to the whereabouts of this ill-fated flight.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport, July 2014 – Image by David McKelvey
Simply proclaiming that Malaysia Airlines had no idea where Flight MH370 was and that they were working with the best teams to find Flight MH370 would have presented as a stronger message than flooding the media with the same information over and over.
The repeated media statements are something to highlight here. It was almost as if Malaysia Airlines kept repeating the same thing over and over because they didn’t know what to do. Like an unrehearsed choir, the company sounded lost and unsure of what to do. Understandably, the instinct is to say something rather than nothing at all, hence Malaysia Airlines’ torrent of media releases, all of which were relatively similar to one another.
A better response by Malaysia Airlines should have been the utilisation of one clear, cohesive voice that regretfully admitted the uncertainty and unprecedented nature of the situation directly to consumers and the next of kin of passengers and crew on board.
Keeping consumers in the dark is never the correct solution.
Honesty, even in this situation, would have been the best policy. Admitting the nature of Malaysia Airlines’ knowledge of the whereabouts of Flight MH370 would undoubtedly have been embarrassing for the company, yet in the long term, the decision to fully disclose the situation to the public would have aided grief-stricken family members, and would perhaps have avoided excessive speculation regarding the plane’s disappearance.
Another strongly criticised move of Malaysia Airlines was the delivery of information to next of kin. Whilst Malaysia Airlines remained sincere and honest towards family members of lost passengers and crew-members, information was delivered in an insensitive manner. Late-night text messages were sent out to family members, when unreachable by any other method, confirming the loss of Flight MH370 in the Southern Indian Ocean.
What is questionable about this move is the casualness of a text message. Although these family members were difficult to contact, receiving a text message like this would have been horrific. Malaysia Airlines should have waited and attempted to contact each family member by phone or in person before finally releasing these messages as a last resort.
Malaysia Airlines understandably did what they thought was best at the time, given the unique nature of missing Flight MH370, but perhaps little changes to their crisis management strategy would have made a big difference. Consumers, especially those with lives lost should always remain a priority, and in many ways, it appears Malaysia Airlines worried more about their image than their consumers. For years to come though, it is clear that future aviation crisis plans will be modeled and constructed around the highs and lows of Malaysia Airline’s management of Flight MH370.