The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 was described on the radio this morning as the greatest aviation mystery of all time. Tasteless as it might seem, there’s a good chance Hollywood movie moguls are already planning a disaster movie based on what we already know.
Ironically, if those facts had been pitched as a script idea just a fortnight ago, they would probably have been dismissed on the grounds of implausibility.
There’s an equally strong chance the handling of this tragic event will go down in crisis media training history, filed under “how not to do it”.
The latest development – relatives of the Chinese passengers on the flight have threatened a hunger strike if the Malaysian authorities do not provide more accurate information – is one more chapter in story which has communication (or perhaps the lack of it) as a central theme.
So what can others, who might find themselves in the eye of a media storm, learn from this crisis?
Well, just before that, let’s state that it would be a very hard-hearted person who had no sympathy for the Malaysian authorities. It appears they suddenly found themselves in a global media spotlight with apparently very little information on what might have happened. Instead, they seemed to be dealing with what former U.S. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, would have called “known unknowns”. Not a nice place to be.
But here’s the first learning: just because you may know very few facts, that’s not a reason to say little or worse, nothing. They key is to explain why you only have scant details or why you can’t say more, and ideally say something else that might be of interest to the media. Perhaps, you can’t say more because of a security issue or you don’t want to issue misleading information.
Fine. Just say so. But don’t feel compelled to issue a bit of information that subsequently turns out to be untrue.
Yes, speed is of the essence in a crisis, but that should not come at the expense of accuracy. In this case the authorities were very slow to react, but then when they did, there was a series of “flip-flop” revelations about when the last known contact with the plane took place and the course that it was on.
This has led to criticism that the Malaysian authorities are either incompetent or are withholding information. Either way, their integrity, as the primary source of information, has been weakened. This has all fed into that journalists’ maxim: “We don’t stop covering the story just because you won’t talk to us” or perhaps “won’t give us the full story”.
Instead, the world’s media have looked else where to satisfy the beast that is the global audience -one that’s feasting on a unique and compelling story.
Step forward the air crash investigators, aviation consultants, former airline pilots and even passengers who claimed to have been charmed in the cockpit by one of the pilots of flight MH370.
Every news channel seems to have taken its audience onto the flight deck of a Boeing 777, as it takes off from Kuala Lumpur, albeit in a simulator, and who doesn’t now know how to turn off the transponder and ACARS device?
It’s what we call “filling the news vacuum”. Contrast this with the Michael Schumacher ski accident story, when the family very quickly brought down the shutters and little news has since seeped out.
It’s true Malaysia Airlines didn’t have that option, but there’s no escaping the impression (and perception is crucial in a crisis) of the tail wagging the dog here.
So, to re-cap the media-handling lessons of the flight MH370 crisis:
- Respond quickly, even if you have little to say. You run the risk of playing catch-up with social media or another source (especially the American authorities here).
- Be as open as possible. If you have to withhold information, explain why.
- Don’t state speculation as facts. Backtracking or corrections destroy credibility.
In our training we make the point that although you can’t “undo” a crisis, a company can emerge with its reputation in tact, occasionally even enhanced, if the crisis is handled effectively.
Alas, for the Malaysian authorities, the unthinkable has just happened: their crisis has grown and not by what happened in the air, but by what’s been happening since on the ground.