Laura Petrolino

Crisis Communications Lessons from Malaysia Airlines

By: Laura Petrolino | April 3, 2014 | 

crisis communicationsBy Laura Petrolino

Your phone dings.

A new text message has just arrived.

You wrangle it out of your jacket.

Reposition the grocery bags you are balancing to one arm.

Slide the text icon to the right.

Scroll up to see the unannounced number.

And you see this:

Screenshot 2014-03-27 15.36.34

By now, you’ve all heard of the infamous text message sent from Malaysia Airlines to the families of the missing victims of flight MH370.

According to The Drum, the airlines claimed that most of the families had already been informed in person and by telephone, and that “SMSs were used only as an additional means of communicating.”

But is a text message the correct way to communicate something of this nature at all?

A Failure to Communicate

Even most teenage boys know by now not to break up with a girl through text message.

Notifying families of something on this tragic of a scale is not only careless, but displays an almost sickening indifference to the people they should have taken the most care to support.

Of course, this is not how the airline intended it. But, after weeks of communications mistakes, blunders, and an almost complete surrender of the entire story over to the media (who in many cases also removed basic human consideration of the loss, for meatier, 24 hour, on-going coverage), Malaysia Airlines wasn’t thinking of the families – they probably weren’t even thinking about how this would appear.

They were in survival mode.

Anyone who has spent any time working in crisis communications knows survival mode is not the place you want to be during a crisis.

Just like any other time we go into survival mode as humans, we stop connecting, we stop thinking clearly and with foresight, we stop being strategic, we become self-focused, and we just try to do what we can to survive.

None of these are traits you want in a communications team.

Crisis Communications in the Digital Age

The Malaysia Airlines PR team has a lot stacked up against them.

They are dealing with an unprecedented situation, in an age where news travels faster, and through more different channels than even Superman could keep up with.

We also cannot underestimate the fact they are dealing in a different culture, one that operates differently from western culture on many levels.

However, they made several crucial mistakes that could have been avoided with the right strategy:

  1. They surrendered ownership. They didn’t act swiftly enough, nor did they stay on top of the issue, providing updates, or even just communicating there were not any updates to be made. A mysterious situation like this is a ready-made media firestorm, making it all the more important to communicate consistently.
  2. They were not adequately prepared. You can’t be totally prepared for an incident like this, but you can have a basic plan of operations, and a communications pipeline. This should be a system that can be put in place, with needed modifications, no matter what form the crisis takes.
  3. The different parties seemed to work completely independently of each other. Even the best crisis communications plan will not work if there is not on-going collaboration between all sectors of an organization. How can a PR team know how to best communicate what’s going on, if they don’t understand the protocol and operational actions of the organization during crisis? They can’t.

Many others have already explored this tragedy in detail and provided clear take aways of things we can all learn from it when it comes to improving our own crisis communications skills.

Where does the airline go from here?

In Spin Sucks: Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age, Gini Dietrich discusses crisis communications in detail.

She reviews how to prepare, deal, and recover from a crisis.

She provided an eight-step process in her blog post on Tuesday.

Let’s say you are hired and tasked with helping Malaysia Airlines through this process.

  • Where would you start?
  • What would be your overall objectives?
  • Which tactics would you use?
  • Which media channels would you focus your efforts in?
  • How would you integrate it all together?

Malaysia Airlines will continue to deal with the reverberations of this tragedy for the weeks, months, and even years that lie ahead.

How would you suggest they change the course of their communications now and begin to repair the damage that has already been done to their overall reputation?

About Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • Step 1) I would hire you to coordinate it.

  • Eleanor Pierce  I heart you! (p.s. -check is in the mail!)

  • LauraPetrolino In all seriousness, just reading that text message makes me feel nauseated.

  • Eleanor Pierce LauraPetrolino  totally devastating. I seriously cannot even imagine!

  • Survival mode. It’s a bad place to be and yes, occasionally, you have to be there for a little while, but the problem with survival mode is it inhibits one’s ability to think, be compassionate, and be, well, human.

  • This writeup (well done!) reminded me of the book I read “Five Days at Memorial” regarding Memorial Hospital’s attempts to function during Hurricane Katrina. I think “where to start” is (obviously) critical …. in their case they had all kinds of procedures for the different things that happened (storm, loss of power, loss of personnel) but no procedure for more than one of the things happening at once. // The biggest issue to me was the utter lack of knowing “who was in charge” — a large amount of time was spent taking instructions from a man who said he was “with FEMA” who was actually a marginally-related volunteer. No one took accountability for doing an inventory of patients, staff, resources — leaving out an entire floor of people who were “someone else’s patients” because they were there under a subcontract. (All the while, some people assumed they WERE being taken care of.) The only silver lining is that procedures were developed for other emergencies (such as Hurricane Sandy) that fed off of the lessons learned in Katrina (i.e., if you have six ventilator dependent babies and three ventilators that aren’t dependent on power, who do you ventilate?). This is extremely oversimplifying it but: 1) have a plan 2) specifically agree on who is in charge 3) even though procedures are critical, know when to toss procedures in lieu of contingency actions.

  • biggreenpen  that sounds like a very interesting book, and you are right Katrina was another case study in how to not do emergency management

  • ClayMorgan  110% exactly!

  • LauraPetrolino biggreenpen sure was (Katrina). Here’s the link to the book:

  • LauraPetrolino biggreenpen sure was (Katrina)

  • When Chobani couldn’t meet production demand 2 summers ago and there was a heatwave causing many cups to go bad in transit they handled it really well. They had signs in the dairy section explaining the lack of stock. They owned every bad cup. Even if not their fault they replaced them all when someone complained on social media. They asked for no receipts of proof of purchase. Just where the product was bought and your home address to send coupons. That was easy. That was a good crisis.

    Last summer they had a mold outbreak they handled poorly. The tried a quiet recall until that failed and some people got sick. They posted about the type of mold and explained very few people will get sick (like that made us feel good). Meanwhile twitter and facebook they were getting pounded by people who got sick or had family who did. Yet they were still posting cheery brand posts on facebook.

    I contacted my friends who ran social and told them ‘YOUR BRAND IS AT STAKE!’ And to get a post from the owner/ceo with empathy. They had such a post up within an hour.

    We all do not plan for crisis. It is human nature. And often react vs proact. Very hard mindset. But for big business so much is at stake. Not just money. Jobs. Families. Communities. all could be affected by an imploding company. Just look at Abercrombie. They are closing a ton of stores because of their arrogance. Good for them. Sad for their workers. At least the workers are good looking right? lol

  • aimeelwest

    I agree with you Eleanor Pierce I can’t imagine being the person who even thought this was a good idea to send out. LauraPetrolino

  • I think you might have hit the nail on the head when you mentioned ‘cultural differences’ – but sending a text like that still pretty much takes the cake Funny, when the story first came out, I thought they had texted family members to warn them about ‘the big announcement’ – for those who were out of own, or who otherwise couldn’t be there. Like “Um, there’s going to be an announcement, brace yourselves” – that sort of thing. Which I actually thought was really nice! LOL

  • belllindsay  I would love to have been a fly on the wall in their PR team meeting when they decided this was a good idea. I’m sure it was (as many disasters are), a well meaning action that just wasn’t thought through!

  • “They are dealing with an unprecedented situation, in an age where news travels faster, and through more different channels than even Superman could keep up with.” 
    ^^ I love that line! ^^ 
    And I definitely agree with you about them losing control of this situation very fast. They practically handed this one off to the media like a quarterback hands off a football to his runner. That’s just about the worst thing you can do with a crisis because the likes of CNN and FOX News will have a field day with it. You can always bet on that.

  • belllindsay   I agree that you have to be careful how you handle a situation like this when dealing with different cultures. You may have to approach this same crisis a little differently depending on who your audience is, but in the end, both the Eastern world and Western world are human. 
    It’s important not to think everyone in the Eastern world doesn’t have the same worries and emotions that people in the Western world do. A human worry is a human worry.

  • ClayMorgan  Well said!

  • allisonshea30

    I’ve always found it unfortunate that PR is so rarely mentioned or even thought about, except in crisis communications.  The only times I can remember reading about someone not in PR writing about PR is when talking about Alex Rodriguez’s steroids story, or that tweet sent out by USAirways a few weeks ago.

    I remember reading that AirBnB has an extensive crisis communications plan.  So when a guest took to a guy’s apartment to host an orgy a few weeks back (yikes) they had compensation for the damages in the host’s bank account within hours., not to mention a hotel for him while his home was professionally cleaned.  

    Imagine it’s an exhausting job to sit and figure out every possible thing that could go wrong, and prepare accordingly!

  • aimeelwest

    allisonshea30 yikes just think of the planning session for all these outcomes..

  • kelseytrif

    As a PR student who has just learned all about crisis communication, I can safely say that the way they handled this situation was pretty much the exact opposite of what I have been taught.

    I was following this mystery quite closely for awhile and all I could think about was how frustrating it was that I could never get valid updates. I always felt that the prime minister would make a big announcement or a new search spot would be found, and then I would never hear anything more about it.

    The crisis communication in this situation has been rather frustrating and upsetting. I completely agree that there are cultural differences, but sending a text message to these poor families was pretty heartless. Not to mention only offering them $5,000 per person on the plane. 

    I am no expert yet, but if I were in this situation, I would be extra considerate of these families who are grieving and would never send them a text message. I would also make sure to keep the public updated as much as possible, but keeping the families updated would be my first priority. 

    I think this will serve as an example of bad PR for the future. 

    Thank you so much for this great read! It was nice to read something about the situation that I completely agree with.

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  • Ambercarl

    Right away I am
    going away to do my breakfast, afterward having my breakfast coming over
    again to read other news.