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Crisis communications and resilience: what's next for Malaysia Airlines?



Two weeks ago, we discussed Malaysia Airlines’ response to family and the media following news of a flight going missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. At the time, much was unknown about what happened to the ill-fated flight. Now, after countless search hours and coordinated efforts from over 14 nations, it is alleged that the flight crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the Western Coast of Australia.

Though this is one piece of the mystery, much remains unknown. Some have speculated that the captain, who was going through marital troubles at the time, took the plane on one last “joy ride.” Others think mechanical failure or a terrorist attack are to blame; but while speculation is ripe, no one is certain.

What is certain is that very few of us are rushing to book our next holiday with Malaysia Airlines. Family members, crisis experts, and the general public have all criticized the airline’s response, but the most powerful indicator is perhaps the 10% drop in share prices since the March 8 disappearance.

One of the primary criticisms is that the airline has had a slow, communication response. There has been significant confusion throughout the investigation process and family members felt they weren’t being provided information in a timely manner. Beyond that, the airline has garnered further criticism for its choice of communication to inform family members that all passengers were presumed dead. While phone calls and in person conversations were utilised, some family members found out the news via text message. Understandably, the decision to use an impersonal communication platform has been controversial.

As far as crisis communication goes, this case has had a significant number of challenges. A lack of information, language barriers, and proverbial international red tape has affected the search efforts. Beyond that, global media attention and the challenges of coordinating a search in a large, challenging geographical area have provided further complications.

Now that investigators are speculating there aren’t any survivors, the world is coming to terms with the probable fate of the plane. But what is the fate of the airline?

If the airline hopes to recover from this crisis, it must develop operational and communication strategies that address concerns and reassure potential passengers. Worldwide, the name Malaysia Airlines is immediately associated with missing flight MH370. To counter this, Malaysia Airlines must highlight aspects, such as a strong safety record, and provide positive stories. This may be reminders about accolades the airline has received in the past, or stories that highlight the qualifications of staff and the safety of aircraft.

Beyond that, a series of checks and balances must be put in place and communicated to the public. For Malaysia Airlines, this is especially challenging as there is so much speculation about what happened to the flight. As a result, robust safety precautions must be implemented across the organisation.

Increasing the frequency, depth and documentation of maintenance checks is one immediate way to boost passenger confidence and prevent mechanical problems. Along with that, heightening security procedures internally and externally calms the concerns of those who believe something more sinister was at play in this instance. Comprehensive background checks, robust training for staff, and strict security checks for passengers can also address some of these concerns.

Along with putting these measures in place, Malaysia Airlines must communicate these precautions effectively and with the support of international aviation regulation bodies. Passengers will be looking to reputable aviation associations for safety information and allied efforts to ensure another instance like this doesn’t happen will aid the airline’s recovery.

People are scared of the unknown. When an explanation is offered and a problem identified, people can make sense of an incident and gather more information. Without this explanation, people panic. In cases where there are so many unknown variables, frequent communication, transparency and robust safety measures are the only way to rebuild a reputation damaged from a crisis.

When major crises like this occur, it’s a reminder of the importance of a robust crisis management plan. If you need assistance developing, reviewing or implementing your crisis management plan, contact Briggs Communications.

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