Special thanks to my colleague Nick Williams for his idea and research for this post.
In an era of short attention spans and fragmented audiences, it’s rare to see the world so transfixed for weeks as it has been with the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.
The combination of mystery, international scope and relatable human tragedy made the jet’s disappearance a powerful story, and this week’s confirmation of its passengers’ deaths has united the global community in grief.
After a crisis, attention turns inevitably to how the organizations at its centre conducted themselves. What can we learn from Malaysian Airlines and its crisis communication? Here are a few ideas:
1. Crisis communication readiness is an active process.
For complex organizations, it’s not enough to have a crisis plan sitting idly on a shelf or in a virtual file folder; they must review, rehearse and refine the plan regularly. For example, last year Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority conducted a tabletop crisis simulation to simulate how different departments — such as operations, customer service, corporate communications, human resources, legal and public affairs — would work together in the event of a massive blackout during a severe winter storm. This made the organization better equipped when the real thing happened mere months later. To Malaysian Airlines’ credit, the carrier had a “dark site” (i.e., an otherwise dormant, ready-made crisis communications site) ready to go and launched very quickly — which suggests evidence of a plan.
2. Understand the roles of management, governance and key stakeholders.
There’s no greater predictor of crisis communication success than the rapid demonstration of human concern and ownership of the operational response by the organization’s leadership. The CEO must lead, with visible support from the board and relevant executives. Stakeholders must be closely involved. On this front, Malaysian Airlines did not do well with its most critical stakeholders — the families of the victims — with some incoherent communication and a lack of clarity about the respective roles of the PR spokesperson, the CEO and the carrier’s owner, the Government of Malaysia. As a PR Week analysis of the crisis suggested, this created a serious credibility gap.
3. Even when you know nothing, say something.
Many organizations suffer reputational damage during periods when they have nothing new to report —so they say nothing. Silence breeds speculation and rumour, and feeds perceptions of inaction and indifference. Malaysian Airlines seemed to understand this reputational risk and worked to fill the void (see sample tweet below).
4. Empathize with your stakeholders’ emotional state.
The need for accuracy, focus and calm during a crisis is a double-edged sword for public organizations such as governments, law enforcement and regulatory authorities, research institutions, hospitals and child welfare agencies. While these qualities are essential to the operational response, they often lead to dry, factual and clinical communications. Malaysian Airlines did better on this score, exemplified by the CEO’s YouTube videos and the carrier’s tweets. For example, the tweet below is effective on several levels: it shows empathy for the most important stakeholders, highlights a hard-working crisis response, reminds us the end goal is to save lives, and involves the audience.
5. Own the conversation.
When a crisis breaks, the conversation begins immediately; the question is whether the organization involved is leading or lagging. In an excellent analysis of other airline crises, Ryan Cohn makes a compelling case for owning the conversation by wading into social media first, because that’s where people affected by the crisis will go immediately to share their experiences. This requires communicators who are empowered to act quickly. While giving them such authority is challenging, establishing both the news and the hashtag for conversation can have a dramatic impact on the organization’s ability to manage the flow of information and protect its reputation in the hours, days, weeks and months to come.
6. Lead the recovery — transparently.
As the emotional impact of this week’s news recedes gradually, questions will turn to what has been learned from the crisis — by the carrier, and by everyone connected to aviation safety. At such moments, the worst mistake an affected organization can make is to assume the worst is over. A stakeholder-informed assessment of lessons learned and changes to be made — transparently communicated, with reports to follow — is the most important route to a sustainable recovery. In this sad case study, it may also help bring some meaning to a human tragedy.
About the Author:
Daniel Tisch is the President and CEO for Argyle Public Relationships. He is one of Canada’s best-known communicators, having worked at senior levels in government before embarking on a 20-year consulting career in which he has advised CEOs, boards, government leaders and marketers for some of the world’s biggest brands.