Ever since March 8, when Malaysian Flight 370 went missing, the world has stood by trying to absorb the despair and sadness among the families and friends of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members who have now been declared lost at sea.
In a world of instant communications, the images from Malaysia have been strikingly painful to watch. The video of a Chinese woman being dragged out of a room while screaming about the loss of her son will forever be imprinted in the hearts and minds millions of people who care about humanity.
For anyone who manages communications, what has been equally striking is the way the Malaysian government and Malaysian Airlines have executed their crisis management plans (if they had them).
Surely, these entities have been confronted with extraordinary circumstances. With the families of the victims perched on their doorstep and hundreds of journalists pounding away for answers, government authorities and airline executives had to respond.
However, the manner in which they communicated created a circus-like atmosphere that became every bit as explosive as jet fuel. The daily press briefings, which became the major avenue for communicating in Kuala Lumpur, quickly became media feeding frenzies.
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister and acting minister of transportation, became an instant media source. From afar, particularly in the U.S. where most of the population is wired, he appeared unsure of himself and lacking key facts to support his statements. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak added to the mystery with confusing statements that shifted from day to day.
Malaysian officials faced a barrage of criticism over perceptions that their search efforts were woefully disorganized and that they were issuing conflicting statements/information to a world audience. It was apparent they were way behind the information curve in revealing crucial new data. At times, efforts were so poorly managed that other countries were distributing satellite information without coordination with Malaysian authorities.
The bizarre nature of the story was also complicated by the actions of other countries. For example, 10 days after the jetliner disappeared, Thailand’s military said it saw radar blips that might have been from the missing plane but didn’t report it “because we did not pay attention to it.”
In all, 26 countries joined the search to “find a needle in a haystack.”
Finally, on March 25, 17 days after the jetliner disappeared, Razak told the world in a late-night televised briefing that a new analysis of satellite data showed the plane went down off the western coast of Australia ... far from any possible landing site.
Texting Causes Uproar
Malaysia Airlines, itself caught in a web of tangled communications, compounded the situation when it abruptly announced that it had to “assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived.”
Incredibly, those words came in the form of a text message sent to the missing flight’s passengers’ family members in advance of an official statement from Malaysia’s prime minister. So much for coordinated crisis communications.
Even these events are murky. Malaysia Airlines claimed a representative for the company told the assembled families in person, and that phone calls and SMS messages were sent to relatives who were not in the family-support center.
No matter, what the world perceived was that families were notified by text, a cruel, cold-hearted means of communications. The image of a family member reading a blistering statement against Malaysian authorities is another one that will stand the test of time.
The crux of the statement was vicious: “...From March 8, when they announced that MH370 lost contact, to today, 18 days have passed during which the Malaysian government and military constantly tried to delay and deceive the passengers’ families and cheat the whole world ... Malaysian Airlines, the Malaysian government and military are the real executioners who killed them (the passengers and crew).”
The airline also did a poor job of protecting the families from the media invading their privacy. In China, where the flight was to land, airline officials struggled at first to provide sufficient information for relatives or help buffer them from the media who pushed TV cameras, iPhones and microphones in their faces for comment. Put another way, officials in charge let the media’s tail wag the dog and “drive the information train.”
While it’s difficult to put oneself in the shoes of the Malaysian authorities, it appears they violated two cardinal rules of crisis management.
First, they communicated without the facts. Instead of waiting for concrete information on the fate of the plane, the government disseminated facts and figures that were neither verified nor correct.
Second, the people in charge did not speak with one voice. The airline followed one protocol, while the government went in another direction. On top of that, the Malaysian military had its own agenda. As difficult as it may sound, these groups should have issued one joint statement per day. This would have created an environment of “speaking with one voice.” Instead of creating clarity, they created confusion.
In the United States and other industrialized countries, aviation administrators manage air tragedies. Typically, trained managers and spokespersons deliver information factually and calmly.
In the case of the Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, communications was more fact driven and streamlined. The French did have a much better idea of the plane’s location when it went down, but the loss of life in that incident was no less significant than Flight 370.
In the end, it may be that the real problem is the secretiveness bred by the Malaysian ruling party’s 56 years of uninterrupted years in power. What is billed as a “democratic Monarchy,” may be closer to a semi-autocracy.
From a crisis management standpoint, the takeaway is clear: don’t comment on rumor and speculation. Simply report the facts.
Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.