From a PR perspective, there are two tragedies connected with the missing MH 370.
The first and foremost is, of course, that no one knows the fate of the 239 passengers. However, from a communications perspective, the other tragedy is that Malaysian government and airline officials appear not to have a Crisis Communications Plan in place. Or if they do, it isn’t a very effective plan. Imagine the emotional roller coaster the families of the missing passengers are riding every time a new report comes to light.
As most PR pros know, there are a few very basic rules of an effective Crisis Communications Program:
Always have a spokesperson Chain-of-Command in place so everyone automatically knows who is authorized to speak to the media and in what order. No one else should make any comments to the media and just refer them to the authorized spokesperson. Where many Crisis Communications Plans fail, especially in drawn-out situations like this, is when unauthorized people make statements to the media that may not be accurate.
When a crisis occurs, only issue a basic statement summarizing the situation until you can gather and verify the facts. In this case, it would have been “Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 passengers aboard is missing. We are in the process of gathering more information and will let you know as we have more facts. ”It is also appropriate to share facts that you know for sure, such as the time it took off, the weather conditions, the last communications from the cockpit and how the passengers and crew are. There should be no speculation as to what may have happened to the plane - leave that to the media and other “experts”.
Depending on the crisis, always try to meet early on in the crisis with the victims’ families to share what facts you have. You want them to know you care and are trying to resolve the situation. If the families are not brought in early in the crisis, they can become very vocal detractors of your efforts and credibility.
There should be a process in place to check all related facts as quickly and thoroughly as possible and to internally discuss all possible scenarios. Once you have some solid facts, those can be relayed to the media by the appropriate spokesperson as they are confirmed. For example, the pilot and co-pilot’s homes should have been checked right away and reported to the media that this was being done. It should have also been reported that “we are in close communications with authorities in the region and as we know the facts, we will share them with you”.
Reach out to all concerned parties and ask them to keep you appraised of any facts they discover and if possible, share them with you first. Ask them if you can deliver the news and credit them as the source. In this case, that would mean Malaysia working with the other government officials to deliver the news. For example, the official Malaysian spokesperson would say “We just talked with Chinese officials and they have satellite evidence that the plane changed course.” If other governments won’t cooperate, be prepared to respond to the news by either confirming or denying that you just heard it from that source as well.
There are several other elements and strategies that make up an effective Crisis Communications Program, but getting these basic elements right are the critical first steps. Of course it is easy for us to second-guess what should have been done after the fact - but the point here is having a good Crisis Communications Plan BEFORE a crisis occurs.
Your crisis probably won’t involve a missing airplane, but there are a number of other crises no one anticipates that occur every day. A few we have dealt with for our clients include floods, strikes, environmental challenges and suicides.
I hope you have a Crisis Communications Plan in-place, and that you’ll never have to use it.