It seems likely to go down as one of the worst examples of botched corporate communications in history: On March 24, 16 days after Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared on its journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the airline delivered official condolences to the relatives of the 239 people who had been on board.
By text message.
"Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived," the airline declared in its text, acting on fresh satellite data that purportedly confirmed that the flight had crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
For practitioners of the trade known as crisis management, here was a textbook illustration of how not to go about it. Here was a recipe for turning a terrible event into an irredeemable destroyer of brand image.
“The most important stakeholder in an aviation crisis is the family,” Carreen Winters, executive vice president, corporate at MWW, a public relations firm based in East Rutherford, New Jersey, says. “Malaysia Airlines checked off the box, but didn’t figure out a way to communicate with families in a way that was human to tell them their loved ones were presumed dead.”
One hundred days after a jet loaded with the usual trappings of modern aviation somehow vanished into the void, the disappearance of MH370 is shaping up as a case study -- and cautionary tale -- for communications specialists stuck having to explain the next unthinkable disaster.
In the telling of PR experts, the catalogue of mishaps is vast. Official mouthpieces for both the Malaysian government and the airline laid out often-incomplete and internally inconsistent accounts, enraging relatives of passengers and undermining confidence in their future pronouncements. They stumbled in their dealings with a demanding international media, appearing awkward, confused and less than forthright.
All of this gave life to rumors, speculation and conspiracy theories, making the government and the airline appear worse than mere actors in a tragedy: They came to seem like conspirators, as if they had something to hide.
James Lee, CEO of Los-Angeles-based the Lee Strategy Group Inc., which specializes in aviation crisis management, says the ultimate error was keeping relatives in hotel rooms in Malaysia for weeks after the plane's disappearance.
“That was really bad," he says, adding that the relatives should have been sent home much sooner and then supplied regular updates. "You created a media-feeder every day where family members would come out after daily briefings and they became more emotionally distraught. I’m sure from Malaysia’s standpoint, it’s viewed as sign of compassion, but the problem is there’s a difference between compassion and prolonging agony.”
And yet there was almost nothing the government or the airline might have said that was going to make things right. In an era in which nearly every public issue is analyzed as one of image management, the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight was effectively impervious to communications spin, its bare essentials all-defining. Without any physical evidence to work with -- no debris, no black box, no bodies -- those tasked with interacting with the public essentially had nothing to offer. All that was known was precisely what was unknown: 239 people were missing, without any explanation.
“There is a tendency nowadays to attribute the core tragedy or original sin to the mismanagement of its aftermath,” Eric Dezenhall, a crisis communications strategist and founder of Washington D.C.-based public relations firm Dezenhall Resources, says. “In other words, if the PR was better managed, there wouldn’t be so much outrage. This is a false construct.”
Every crisis is different, Dezenhall adds. This one was perhaps uniquely unsuited to the traditional crisis management playbook: just play straight and lay it out there. There was almost nothing to lay out there beyond the frustrating lack of information. In an age in which GPS trackers are found on children’s shoes, the public was going to have a difficult time grasping how a jumbo jet could simply disappear.
THE WORKINGS OF AN INFORMATION VACUUM
Communications experts are big on metaphors. For Matthew Seeger, a communications professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, the Malaysia Airlines disaster presents "like a murder without a body." It gave rise to no end of speculative explanations.
“Every crisis creates an information vacuum,” Seeger says. “There’s an outstanding occurrence that is outside the norm so there’s an intense need for information to explain what’s going on. At the same time there’s a lack of information.”
In the case of MH370, that lack of information was near total -- fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Everything from government cover-ups to alien abductions have been pitched as possible explanations for what happened. Perhaps that was inevitable, but the chaotic and contradictory responses from the Malaysian government made it worse.
Communications people are fond of reminding companies that they need to have plans in place long in advance of disaster striking. For years to come, one may safely assume, MH370 will be cited as a potent example.
“99 percent of crisis communication is preparation,” Lee, the Los Angeles-based crisis management expert, says. “If you don’t have something in place beforehand, or practice it, then when the real thing happens you’re flailing to catch up. That was Malaysia’s problem.”
Many airlines maintain protocols that spell out how to respond to tragedies. Family assistance centers are set up along with information hotlines. Relatives are put in touch with designated representatives via email and telephone.
This was what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, recalls Ernest DelBuono, senior vice president at Levick and chairman of the firm’s crisis practice, who ran the family assistance center for American Airlines at Dulles International Airport.
“There were American Airlines employees that actually took up residence at the families’ homes," he says. "That’s how close, in some cases, the relationship was. The family member actually saw that the airline representative as a part of the family.”
Relatives of passengers aboard MH370 found that what facilities were set up generally proved to be disorganized. Malaysia Airlines put up relatives in hotel rooms in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur and convened there to brief families about the search, but news was delivered sporadically -- and often late.
“We receive all of our meaningful information through the press and our network of private experts,” Sarah Bajc, the girlfriend of American MH370 passenger Philip Wood, says. “The updates from the Malaysian government are usually a day or two after the information hits the news.”
At other times, the Malaysian government has seemed to jump the gun and share news too early. In one instance, the government reported a precise timeline that indicated when the plane’s two radar mechanisms shut down -- a finding which suggested there had been a takeover in the cockpit. A few days later, the government backtracked and said it didn't know when the communications systems went dark.
“If given the choice between angering people by saying ‘we don’t know’ and giving out bad data, it’s preferable to do the former because the latter looks like a mendacious attempt at spin,” Dezenhall says.
THE PERILS OF INFORMATION
In many disasters involving corporate interests, the communications people are inclined to disclose what they have to inoculate the company from later charges of covering up bad news. But other executives bring the opposite inclination, fearing that too much information is like chum for lawyers bringing lawsuits.
“The people that we have to deal with that are the most resistant to that idea -- in companies and even governments -- is counsel,” Lee says. “Their natural inclination is to shut everything off and have no one say anything because they’re worried about liability.”
No conclusive evidence has emerged that Malaysian Airlines or the national government withheld crucial information about the flight or the search, though some critics have suggested as much. But many PR experts agree that the country wasn't prepared for an aggressive international press, particularly because Malaysia's own press is effectively muzzled by curbs on free expression.
“In this country, we are used to high levels of transparency, and that’s what we expect around these particular episodes,” Seeger says. “That assumption does not hold when dealing with other countries -- not just Malaysia but China and other players associated with this event. We have seen this in other airline disasters, that those kinds of episodes reflect negatively on the country.”
Those who recall, say, BP's communications missteps in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may beg to differ. So, too, may those with memories of the Exxon Valdez grounding in Alaska in the late 1980s or Goldman Sachs' struggles to rid itself of the taint of the 2008 financial crisis. Yet the involvement of the Malaysian government -- which has jailed journalists -- seems to have sown special distrust.
The problem was exacerbated by the government’s comparatively slow development of a clear consensus about where to search for the missing Boeing-777. The government was also criticized for not asking for international help sooner.
“A lot of it is national pride,” Lee says. “You find this in the southern hemisphere, and with first world countries that think they are just as capable when they are clearly not. It’s no denigration. They don’t have the technology, they don’t have the experience and they don’t have the resources. They want to hang onto the lead because they feel a moral obligation.”
Once Australia took the lead in the search effort, things ran more smoothly, PR experts say. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau gave daily briefings and gained a social media presence that informed the general public on any progress made.
“Australia had a more limited role. It was very clear they were acting from a position of greater strength,” Josh Zeitz, a senior vice president at MWW, says. “They weren’t the airline, the responsible party. They weren’t the Malaysian government, who’s expected to regulate the airline, follow its course, track it and know where it was. They weren’t the Chinese government that has trust problems to begin with. They were a third party being helpful.”
Yet a hundred days after the flight's disappearance, the same basic problem confronts anyone who must account for the tragedy: No one really knows what happened, making any explanation dubious on its face.
“As long as we don’t know what happened to that plane, Malaysia will be seen as having botched this,” Dezenhall says. “My view is that they just don’t know what happened, and in an age when we receive our cues from the entertainment industry, where everything is crisp and clean and all-knowing, this seems unfathomable.”