Rebuilding trust in an airline that has had two horrific tragedies in the space of a few months is a PR mission not many would want to tackle.
“You’d have to say the challenge was the most unenviable in the world,” said Jackie Crossman, CEO of Crossman Communications, the PR company tasked with rebuilding trust in Malaysia Airlines in Australia and New Zealand after the twin tragedies.
“It’s very rare that any PR professional will be faced one such tragedy, let alone two.”
Crossman agreed it was one of the hardest things she’s done in her PR career. “The pressure was intense.”
What happens straight after such a tragedy is always a crucial time. Crossman said her and the team came on board just after the disappearance of MH370 – the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on March 8, 2014 and has since not been recovered. The second tragedy occurred July 17, 2014 when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine.
“There is a period of time where it’s appropriate to have a moratorium on all marketing communications,” explained Crossman. “But clearly the business has to go on, appreciating you have to be respectful to the victims and their families and that has to be the major consideration.”
It’s a very delicate line to tread, admitted Crossman, “because we had to blend sensitivity with creativity to ensure we had cut-through and acceptance”.
“It was very difficult. It was a big challenge at the end of the day.”
In order to achieve this fine line, the team believed the best approach was advocacy, an approach Crossman Communications was awarded for at the PRWeek Awards Asia early this week.
“What we were doing was focusing on advocacy,” explained Crossman. “Our goal really was to mobilise third party support and encourage respected media outlets to champion the brand and in doing so, regain the faith with customers and rebuild trust.
“We endeavoured to fill an information void with constant updates as well as a stream of positive news because clearly, at the time, there was a backdrop of grief, conspiracy theories, intense media scrutiny, all exacerbated by the fact that Australia was coordinating the MH370 search.
“It was a very, very complex situation and adding to that were cultural and time-zone differences as well,” she said, including the restructuring of the brand internally and numerous other distractions.
Crossman Communications also enlisted the help of celeb chef Poh Ling Yeow and tennis star Nick Kyrgios as ambassadors of the brand.
The approach appears to be working, according to Crossman. In February, the Australian Government’s International Airline Activity report showed Malaysia Airlines passenger numbers in and out of Australia were up 7.8 per cent up on the same month last year – with Crossman noting that was actually the month prior to MH370, which disappeared in March.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Crossman. “You don’t rebuild a reputation in a matter of months. But what we have done has clearly worked.”
When asked whether Malaysia Airlines will ever get back to where it was, where the tragedies aren’t the first or second thought about the airline, Crossman is confident the brand will make it back.
“Because Malaysia Airlines is still a very good airline.”