Amith Prabhu: The Public Relations in the aftermath of the tragedy of MH370

31 Mar,2014

By Amith Prabhu


The last three weeks have seen the global attention focus on the uncommon incident of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. Earlier this week, the Malaysian Prime Minister made an abrupt announcement that the aircraft had plunged into the ocean. The world at large and especially the families of the passengers on that ill-fated plane are still not convinced of the whereabouts of the MH370.


The mess began as an operational disaster and soon tuned into a public relations nightmare. Much has been written about what could have been done and what should not have been done. This situation could happen to any airline anytime in the future given the conspiracy theories doing the rounds.


I’m making an attempt to highlight the glaring misses from a reputational point of view in chronological order. There is some much to learn for every industry from what just happened. This will be a case study for years to come.


Firstly, for almost 24 hours after the plane took off, there was no clear communication as to what had happened. There were mixed reports floating. Families and friends of passengers had begun to panic due to the absence of a clear picture.


Secondly, the Prime Minister’s first address came many days after the episode and was ambiguous. It gave the impression that the plane had veered towards India and the possibility of it being in Kazakhstan. This could still be a possibility sine the idea was floated.


Thirdly, sending text messages to the next of kin before the public announcement was a bad idea. Families should have been brought together into a common place or called by a human voice to inform about the plunging.


Fourthly, Malaysian authorities infuriated passengers’ loved ones by telling them at a briefing this week that there was “sealed evidence that cannot be made public” in relation to the missing flight.


Finally, there is the Triple R of crisis communications – Regret, Reason and Remedy. While the company got the first one the second and third seemed to be absent at most times.


In the background there has been some noise of how Boeing’s name has not cropped up after the first day. I would argue saying why should it crop up. Several Boeings fly around the world every minute. Such an incident is completely the airline’s responsibility and not that of the aircraft manufacturer.


As Robert Jensen, CEO of a firm which provides crisis communications support for a number of airline clients says, “The challenge you have with crisis communications is not to make it worse, because you can’t make it better” – If that is something reputation management professionals can understand a lot of risk can be mitigated.


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