Malaysian Air: Lose, Lose for Media, Reputations

The disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight 370 is clearly and undoubtedly a personal tragedy for passengers and crew.  But while we hold out hope for a positive surprise outcome, from a public relations and media perspective, there are few “wins” expected.

Crisis communications doctrine calls for fast, honest and complete communications from the airline and the Malaysian government.  We have seen very inconsistent performance from both of those parties. The situation is complicated by initial thinking that the plane was lost due to accident or mechanical issues.  The now-dominant theory that the plane was hijacked may have wasted valuable time and certainly contributed to anger and frustration among the families of the passengers.

To be fair, airlines are usually criticized no matter what in a situation like this. If they don’t communicate often enough, critics say they’re not getting enough info. If they hold too many press conferences, then people will say they’re not providing enough. The trick is finding the appropriate middle ground, but best practices say they should err on the side of talking often.  There’s no good way to tell angry, frustrated relatives that you don’t know what’s happened to their loved ones. Again, honesty is best.

The airline and the government have suffered reputation damage that may never be overcome. Lax security, shortcuts on safety equipment and a poor crisis response have all been glaringly obvious.  Our trust in the power of our technology has been shattered.

We’re too used to Tom Clancy novels and high-tech television shows where all mysteries are solved in 60 minutes.  If this was Star Trek, they’d have tracked the plane every inch of the way. But the real world clearly isn’t so easily mastered. Perhaps we’re seeing a bit of renewed awareness that we’re not quite the total “masters of time and space” we thought we were.

The world’s airlines also have some explaining to do. Advanced safety measures that might have found this plane have been slow to be implemented even in the fleets of the wealthier countries, let alone on planes flown by counties with more limited resources.

malaysian airYet undetermined is the impact this might have on the tourism industry in Asia, how Chinese-Malaysian relations will be affected and the economic effects on the airline and related industries.

But what about the cable news networks?  Surely they’re winners here, right? Perhaps in the short term they will see rating spikes, but as weeks turn into months they won’t be able to maintain a steady diet of anchors talking about a situation with no news. Personnel resources will be reassigned to other stories, as the situations in the Crimea and Syria continue to evolve and potentially escalate. 

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