2014 has undoubtedly been the worst year in Malaysia Airlines’ history, having suffered two devastating crises. Firstly on March 8, flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing vanished without trace with 239 passengers and crew onboard – it has still not been recovered and there has been no closure.
Just over four months later, on July 17, flight MH17 is believed to have been shot down by a missile whilst flying over a contested area on the Ukraine-Russia border, on its journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All passengers and crew were killed.
The importance of learning from crisis
Whilst all communicators will have counted their blessings that their organisation has never had to face these extraordinary challenges, every organisation should learn from crises such as this. You never know when a major incident may impact your organization. No organization is immune to crises. So taking the time to learn from recent incidents is an investment in protecting your own reputation.
Crisis as a galvanising force
Having recently led a two-day crisis management course in Kuala Lumpur for 36 delegates from a range of Malaysian businesses and government departments, I was privileged to have the opportunity to learn from the experiences and views of those close to the tragedies.
It was clear that at a time of adversity, as well as a huge sense of sadness, there is a strong sense of determination and energy to emerge from the events of this year stronger and more resilient. The feeling of national pride was very much in evidence with many people committing to fly with Malaysia Airlines as they felt it was their ‘national duty’ to support the airline.
In addition to the power of crisis events to galvanise teams and even create a positive opportunity for change, my time in Kuala Lumpur revealed five key lessons that other organisations can learn from the Malaysia Airlines incidents:
1. When multiple parties are involved in responding to an incident, a clear understanding of their respective crisis management roles and responsibilities is essential.
These incidents demonstrate an extreme case of complexity as they not only involved the airline, government and emergency services in Malaysia, but also those in other affected countries – often bringing different views and leadership styles into the mix.
However, whilst perhaps unlikely to be of this scale, the same challenge applies to all organisations with multiple stakeholders involved in responding to a crisis. A key part of crisis management planning is to identify likely partners in any scenario (for example, government, regulatory bodies, emergency services) and agree beforehand who will play what role in a crisis situation. Expectations set early on will save valuable time in a crisis and reduce the risk of message duplication or, even worse, conflicting messages.
Crucially, in a crisis avoid the temptation to ‘delegate’ the responsibility of communication to other organisations – their objective is not to look after your reputation.
2. Be ready, willing and able to communicate quickly, especially via social media, or else rumours will grow and speculative comment will be sourced from third parties to fill the information vacuum.
Malaysia Airlines utilised social media relatively well throughout both crises, communicating effectively in real time and leveraging all its social media channels. This was especially true in the case of MH17 as a result of lessons learned from the first incident. Its microsite provides all the statements, links and phone numbers to be used by families of the victims and other relevant stakeholders.
In today’s online world, people expect instant responses. This means that you need to be prepared to communicate quickly. Your initial response should be simple, letting your audiences know that you are aware there is an issue and that you will provide a more detailed response as soon as you have more information. A slow response will allow third party organizations to fill the information vacuum with conflicting, and sometimes inaccurate, messages.
3. Minimise the number of spokespeople and align messaging to ensure clarity and consistency of communication.
Spokespeople are the face of an organization in a crisis and therefore play a significant role in how the organisation is perceived throughout this difficult time. In a crisis with multiple stakeholders, it is extremely important to clarify who is speaking about what. This was not always the case in MH370 with confusing and conflicting messages being issued.
It is essential therefore that where possible, spokespeople are identified and agreed for each scenario in the planning phase. The more spokespeople there are, the more likely the message becomes confused. In a crisis situation, an organisation needs to be seen to be speaking with one voice with aligned messaging.
Importantly, it should be recognised that every employee is acting as a spokesperson for your organization, whether you like it or not. If used effectively, they can be your greatest allies and ambassadors, but they can also be a potential risk if they are not briefed appropriately.
This should be acknowledged in the crisis communication plan with guidance on how to feed all employees the information they require in a crisis situation: what, when and how to respond; or how to refer enquiries to the right person if more appropriate. Never underestimate the importance of your frontline staff and include them in crisis management training programmes.
4. When an incident results in loss of life, your priority must be to care for and communicate with the families of the victims.
No matter what plans and processes have been put in place, when loss of life is involved, the Number One priority must be to do the right thing for the people most directly affected. You want families to be supportive, not critical, of you.
Unfortunately, in the case of Malaysia Airlines, this was not always the case. Distressing coverage appeared of angry and highly emotional relatives storming into press conferences and publicly criticising the organisation for its handling of the crisis. The last thing you want in a crisis situation is those people most affected fighting against you.
Communicating via text to families with the news that relatives were lost was not well received. Texting lacks emotion and given the sensitivity of the message, it was not an appropriate communication tool in this situation.
This clearly reinforces the need to identify all your stakeholder groups through your crisis management planning and consider how to communicate with them. At sensitive times like these, the communication tool to be used to reach stakeholders can be almost as important as the message itself.
5. The impact of a crisis and how you are perceived to have managed it will be shaped by previous history and the context in which the incident occurs.
Your history as an organisation and the current business situation will certainly play a key part in how the crisis plays out.
Building reputation and relationships before a crisis hits is crucial. Having this stock of trust will enable you to deal with third parties who understand your organisation and may even speak on your behalf during a crisis.
Even when the crisis appears to be over, the organisation must remain on high alert. A crisis focuses the media’s attention on subsequent, less serious issues in an organisation, so be prepared: they will be looking for patterns or repeat offences. This can be clearly seen in the case of Malaysia Airlines, where subsequent issues with cabin air pressure and landing gear made national and international news – only because of the earlier, much more serious incidents.
Learning the crisis communication lessons
For Malaysia, it remains a very difficult time. Recovering from one crisis is hard but possible. Successfully navigating two, especially in the absence of closure, is extremely challenging.
Crises of the scale and magnitude of Malaysia Airlines are thankfully rare. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon anyone working in crisis communication not just to look on from afar but to learn and apply the lessons in our own organisations. Equally, we must continually learn from our own incidents (and near misses) and use them to reduce the potential for harm and similar situations in the future.
Crisis simulations are a critical element of crisis management planning: taking time to learn and apply the lessons from real crises is equally essential.
Jonathan Hemus is the managing director of Insignia Communications, a UK-based reputation management consultancy specialising in crisis management. He is a sought after trainer, coach and speaker on crisis and reputation management and has spoken on reputation management, crisis communication, PR and business continuity at national and international conferences and events, most recently the International Crisis and Risk Communication Conference in Florida. He is a guest member of the Henley Business School faculty and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia