Crisis, yes, but not a PR disaster

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Malaysia Airlines Logo
Malaysia Airlines Logo

This article is written by Robert Minton-Taylor.

No corporate comms executive comes out of a crisis smelling of roses.

The best you can achieve is to leave stakeholders and affected audiences with a favourable impression and renewed confidence in your organisation – that you have done the best in the prevailing circumstances.

The phrase that always sticks in my mind when approaching a crisis is “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

It is a nightmare scenario when a plane disappears off the radar screens and has still to be sighted more than a week after it was due to land. Any amount of issues and crisis communications planning would be insufficient to cope with such a situation.

Yet I have seen lots of web commentary from crisis comms ‘experts’ who claim that “Malaysia Airlines (MAS) … spokespersons struggle to be understood and that … the company needs to have … someone with the ability to convey information at press conferences in clear English”. That the “communications team has lost control of its communications effort, damaging its (MAS) reputation and credibility.”

I’ve been watching and listening to the press briefings and as a British national I have found the English to be perfectly understandable. Indeed to suggest otherwise is at best patronising. As far as MAS “losing control of the communications effort”, well I see no evidence of that. Sure MAS’s communications have improved as the crisis has unfolded, but that is to be expected.

It’s so easy to criticise and offer ‘armchair’ issues and crisis communications advice, but just let’s just take a look at the enormity of the situation facing MAS.

Malaysian officials say that the plane’s flight path could now cover an area across two possible “corridors” – north from the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan through to northern Thailand, and south from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean. That’s millions of square miles!

Just think of the sheer magnitude of the job in coordinating the responses from the reported 26 countries – from Pakistan to Australia – engaged in the search for the Malaysian airliner as well as having to deal with the myriad of military and civilian agencies now involved in looking for the missing plane. It’s a gigantic task of communication and coordination.

MAS appears to be handling its communications as best as it can under these very difficult and trying circumstances. Let’s not forget this is not merely a plane crash but a mysterious disappearance of an aircraft.

The search and rescue operations must take centre-stage and there are no easy answers or quick fix textbook communications solutions to the crisis.

I am sure that MAS – an airline that has a good flight safety record – is using all available channels of communication including social media. They are trying to keep the families and relatives as their primary focus of communication.

So let’s not be too hasty to comment on MAS until we have had time to reflect on what communications lessons could be learnt from the unfolding tragedy.