Over the last few weeks, the world has watched with morbid curiosity the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Throughout the ordeal, Malaysia airlines has dealt with the situation relatively well, communicating with the media and, more importantly, the loved ones of the missing on a daily, even hourly, basis.
Whilst there has been speculation of misinformation, cover-ups and failures to be transparent with what they know (mostly by the families of victims born from a deep mistrust of the Malaysian government), the general consensus within the media is that the situation has been dealt with in a suitable fashion by the airline.
In fact, PR commentators and crisis management experts, including Hamish McLean, have been referenced in an article on smh.com.au commending the actions of the airline.
But, under the immense scrutiny of world media and the world itself, and under the most intense of pressures to find and convey any evidence as to the fate of the flight, there was inevitably going to be a tipping point where all that work came crashing down – and all it took was a single text. Ironically in the same article, McLean said that the crisis ‘textbook’ had run out.
With the world media on its doorstep eagerly lapping up the growing furore, you would have thought that Malaysian Airlines could have found a better way to announce that all hope is lost and ‘none of those on board survived’? We’re just spit-balling here, and without being privy to the insights and intelligence of the airline we would have thought a private conference, phone calls, letters to the families of each victim (granted this may have had to be emailed) – would have been more appropriate, expected and, overall, accepted. In addition to how the airline planned to provide support to the families receiving this heartbreaking information.
It seems in the modern era though, that Malaysian Airlines chose instead to inform grieving families via…a text (thankfully they didn’t put LOL at the end thinking it meant ‘Lots of Love’).
Put into context, the airline has been using texts to relay information to the 1,000 plus family members it is in contact with and that reside around the globe. Understandably though, using this medium for such a devastating message has been met with disbelief and anger, especially as it came minutes before the president went to the media and announced the same thing to the world.
From a purely PR perspective, timing, messaging and medium used shows at best a lack of thought and at most a gross lack of care and a desire to satiate the world’s need for information, whilst undoing some of the damage done to the Malaysian government’s reputation by this whole affair.
It would seem the move was pre-empted by a scheduled media announcement by the Malaysian Premiere whom, it seems, succumbed to world pressure for information and, in the process, forgot that the victims of the flight and their families should have taken precedence over the ‘need to know’ mentality of the rest of the world.
This was confirmed by Malaysian Airlines CEO, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, who defended the use of a text stating: “Our sole and only motivation last night was to ensure that in the incredibly short amount of time available to us, the families heard the tragic news before the world did.”
But it’s not just the use of a text to convey such devastating news; it’s the lack of empathy shown in the wording and the failure to offer any additional support to the families in terms of counselling etc.
The move has been damned by the family of New Zealand passenger, Paul Weeks. In talking to Radio Live in New Zealand his wife, Diana Weeks, commented: "The whole situation has been handled appallingly, incredibly insensitively…Everyone is angry about it.”
It’ll be interesting to see what impact this has, if any, on the way the world evaluates Malaysian Airlines’ and the Malaysian government’s approach to dealing with this crisis. Inevitably, this was always going to be a long process with many ups and downs. With the plane (or any confirmed wreckage) yet to be found, the saga for Malaysian Airlines and the families of the victims has a long course ahead, with the world spotlight lighting its way.
Lee Hall, senior PR and marketing manager, InsideOut PR
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