Within an hour after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed Thursday, the airline sent a tweet confirming the flight had lost contact over Ukrainian airspace.
The response was speedy. It was quickly followed by a tweet from Malaysian Prime Minister Mohd Najib Tun Razak saying an investigation will be launched, and a statement from Malaysia Airlines with greater detail on the exact waypoint when Ukrainian air traffic control lost contact with the Boeing-777 that had 280 passengers and 15 crew members onboard.
Malaysia Airlines' future may depend partly on how it handles this crisis and how the story plays out over the next days and weeks. Malaysia Airlines officials have been reeling since MH370 disappeared into thin air last March with 239 people aboard. Their inept response to that crisis brought a storm of criticism from family members and the public. Spokespeople gave out inconsistent or late bulletins; families received painful news via text message.
But unlike MH370, whose whereabouts remain unknown and whose fate is rife with conspiracy theories as a result, there is more information available about this latest crash. That may help the airline to respond more adequately. And early reports that the MH17 crash was caused by external agents -- as opposed to structural failure, pilot error or pilot suicide -- may help the airline avoid the major blame for the disaster.
“A company attacked by a terrorist will be treated differently from one accused of being the terrorist,” Eric Dezenhall, a crisis communications strategist and founder of Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Dezenhall Resources, told International Business Times.
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“If I were working for the Malaysian Airlines, I'd be focusing on the terrorism aspect because what is determined there will set the groundwork for where the blame gravitates, and crisis management is all about managing the allocation of blame,” he said.
“The airline is in much better position. Hopefully they have learned lessons [from the MH370 disaster] on being transparent and open,” Dr. Matthew Seeger, a communications professor at Wayne State University, said.
Airlines and governments that have handled airline disasters in the past emphasize how most major airlines have plans in place before disaster strikes. Many have protocols where family-assistance centers are established, an information hotline is created for victims’ families along with email addresses, phone numbers and names of specific employees designated for individual families. A joint information center, known as a JIC, for airline personnel and investigators can be set up with a media room nearby for reporters to file their stories on deadline. Regular press conferences are given for updates. Family members are kept isolated from the fray. Grief counseling is offered.
“Concern for the victims -- that’s what Malaysia Airlines should be talking about immediately,” Seeger said. Bodies should be recovered and flown home, and family members should be brought to a central location – another common aspect of a crisis response. “A lot of logical questions need to be answered and managed in a relatively immediate manner. Hopefully, Malaysia Airlines had this prepackaged and in place,” Seeger said.
And while hard information will be recoverable this time – by examining the wreckage, victims’ bodies and flight information – conspiracy theories will still abound, Seeger said. “There will be flight recorder and tracking data, but that doesn’t mean people won’t make alternate claims about what those say. I can’t imagine either side will say it’s our fault.”
Still, “Malaysian Airlines has a huge problem, namely that people are afraid their lives will be at stake if they fly their airline,” Dezenhall said. If this crash is caused by outside forces, their reputation may be salvageable.
“After 9/11, you will recall that the outrage was against the terrorists, not American and United Airlines. Yes, people were afraid to fly, but no one seriously thought that American and United's negligence was the cause of 9/11.”
Seeger predicts the MH17 crash will be subsumed into the dialogue about the current conflict in eastern Ukraine. He calls this the “Velcro effect.” An example, he says, is the tsunami in Japan that was caused by a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011.
“This is not an anomalous kind of event but it’s just profoundly tragic when you have this kind of collateral damage,” Seeger said.