From shock and global sympathy to widespread distrust, outpourings of anger and ridicule, street protests, media criticism, flight cancellations, and a string of pending lawsuits. The past four weeks have not been kind on the national carrier and government of Malaysia. Accused of mismanaging the search and rescue operation for flight MH370, misleading the public and holding back information, Malaysia has battled to find its voice from day one.
To be sure, the case of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 stands out in modern aviation history. The sudden disappearance of a modern Boeing 777 and the stunning lack of any hard evidence pointing to its fate are unprecedented. It makes the change in public perception even more dazzling.
Responses to disasters typically come with a good degree of public support and goodwill; an important asset when so much remains unknown and setbacks are to be expected. But somehow the opposite happened here and Malaysia now has to deal with the partial loss of credibility and the consequences this has for foreign relations, foreign direct investment, tourism, and the competitiveness of its financially struggling national airline. Within days Malaysia had lost control over its own narrative. Not accustomed to serious levels of international scrutiny, the leaders and spokespeople designated to handle the information flow stumbled and prattled away. The result: a crisis upon a crisis, and an enormous disservice to Malaysia’s reputation.
It goes without saying that the tragic loss of a plane with 239 people on board is not simply ‘a story’. However, not communicating or not communicating well when so much is on the line is inexcusable. The result was predictable for an event as colossal as the disappearance of flight MH370. And yet Malaysia found it had been misquoted or falsely accused of misinformation while others did not waste time filling the gaping holes and starting to list the numerous contradictions.
Having worked with the communications teams of national carriers several times in my career I am fully aware of consultants peddling their unsolicited counsel in the days and hours after an incident. They should know better. Basically all major airlines have sophisticated crisis communications teams and procedures in place. The professional response to tragic events that involve the loss of life is key to the very survival of an airline, and airlines therefore engage in regular drills to ensure nothing is left to chance; be it the management of the sensitive information flow to next-of-kin, the switching to the dark site or the daily or hourly press updates. Airlines are probably better equipped to manage large crises than anyone else. With that in mind I am hesitant offering my thoughts. But it is hard to simply stand by and watch. I have lived in Malaysia for years and know this nation deserves better. So here are my thoughts.
The reputational damage from weeks of conflicting statements, leaks and retractions, evasive comments, aggravated by the incremental loss of control over the story is done and it will take time to regain lost ground. The first to know will be Malaysia Airlines, which was just about to make a profit after years of losses. The case is different from Air France’s flight 449 that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009. France did not suffer any negative repercussions because it acted sensibly and professionally although the plane was not found for years. Equally Malaysia, one of the Asian tigers, was not expected to produce immediate answers. It was expected that authorities understand the international scope of the crisis. Instead a global event was handled like a case of domestic politics.
While the very personable and competent CEO of Malaysia Airlines and the equally likable and credible minister Hishamuddin demonstrated leadership in the daily press conferences, the country’s Chiefs of Air Force and Navy displayed confusion and a reluctance to share information. The impression: too many players, uncoordinated, sending different messages. Malaysia realized that and reduced the number of spokespeople to three.
It is striking that statements were not word checked. ‘Alright, goodnight’ or ‘Goodnight Malaysian 370’ may not carry any distinction as far as the investigation goes but a correction two weeks later fuels conspiracy theories.
The crisis management team also did not immediately distance itself from politically motivated comments, which are dynamite in a deeply divided nation such as Malaysia. When British papers described Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah as a political fanatic, the government did not make an instant effort to correct this. Minister Hishamuddin only did so later. By that time the global debate had leaned towards pilot suicide or hi-jack; a theory that is not corroborated by any evidence and does injustice to the captain and the co-pilot.
Perhaps most damaging though were the uninhibited public display of despair and the heartbreaking and undignified scenes of grieving relatives being man-handled in hotel lobbies in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. There is also no excuse for sending grieving relatives text messages instead of making direct contact. This is even less an option when that message basically states your loved one is dead and no one knows where he or she is. Malaysia Airlines defended this by saying it wanted to ensure next-of-kin have heard it from the airline and not from the media. I am afraid this does not count as an excuse. You’ve got to meet the relatives in person, or at the very least call them.
It is easy to point fingers and declare the Malaysian government’s response a complete failure. The nation’s radar control center sleeping on the job; contradicting statements from senior officials; leaks and retractions, followed by new leaks; texted messages to relatives instead of phone calls; compounded by technical glitches, and lack of interpreters at press conferences. In their defense it is hard to imagine any government doing a significantly better job in their initial response. However, as the search enters its fifth week and the reputational damage keeps increasing, Malaysia has still not managed to get ahead of the story.
There are debris fields already and they are measured in units of ridicule, debunked conspiracy theories and politically motivated stabs. Brand Malaysia has taken a severe hit, the extent of which was avoidable.