Tragic Lessons and Malaysia Airlines’ Nightmare Scenario

malaysia_0For any airline, a catastrophic accident involving one of its planes is the most challenging situation that it will ever have to deal with. Nothing else even comes close – and Malaysia Airlines faces overwhelming difficulties as it deals with the disappearance of Flight 370 in June and the destruction of Flight 17 in the Ukraine in July. As the company responds to the Ukrainian crash in the best possible manner given the circumstances, its terrible communications response to the earlier tragedy of Flight 370 may well have sealed its fate, and a total renaming/rebrand is apparently in the works.

How people and companies respond to extreme circumstances can both offer inspiring and difficult lessons for the rest of us. Can the dual tragedies of Malaysian Airlines offer insights for communications professionals?

– One negative perception has far more impact than multiple successes. It’s hard to find fault with Malaysia Airlines’ response to the Flight 17 disaster, but the company’s actions after Flight 370 mysteriously vanished were remarkably poor and prompted massive negative attention. Withheld information, delays in sharing data, an unsympathetic tone in messaging – the errors in crisis management were numerous. Even if the airline had made only minor errors in handling the crisis of Flight 370, resulting negative perception would most likely still outweigh any positive attention from the handling of the Flight 17 horror in Ukraine.

It’s possible to communicate well even in the worst circumstances. The media landscape continues to change at lightning speed, with often unpredictable results. However, there are examples of airlines making communications choices that reinforce trust (as much as possible) after crashes and misfortune. After a Southwest Airlines jet skidded on the runway at LaGuardia Airport in 2013, injuring 10 passengers, the company jumped on social media and took control by offering frequent updates and being transparent with the press and the public. In 1989, a British Midlands Airline plane crashed, killing 74 passengers and wounding 74. The company’s chairman, Michael Bishop, is famous for speaking to the press within five minutes of learning of the tragedy. He balanced compassion and discretion, both bringing a face to a horrific situation as well as steering the conversation rather than letting the press or social media dictate the terms of the dialogue.

Crises will always happen. When? You can’t know. You can, however, know how best to face it when it does.

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