Look, there are very few people out there that really think that Malaysian Airlines have handled this crisis well. And even fewer who are PR or Crisis Communications experts.

Three very important lessons can be learned – which can be applied to most companies, whether or not you are flying 660,000 lb mission critical device with 239 souls. 

1 – Speed

Your plane goes missing… you need to come out and say it.  Speed to react is one of the most important things in a crisis communication situation. 

First up, how long do you think it takes for you to realize that you have a plane missing?  I’m not a commercial pilot, but I would guess that if you own a Boeing 777 (which incidentally costs between US$ 205 - 231 million) you want to keep pretty tight tabs on where it is at all times.

For sure, you know it is about to land (within a few hours), hopefully at your scheduled destination.  You also know that there will be a number of people meeting your arriving passengers. 

You have exactly the delta between loosing contact and scheduled arrival time to have a plan in place and then to start communicating.

Why is speed so important?  Because of a medium vacuum. 

A media vacuum is when the media are looking for answers, and the company that is supposed to be taking control (in this case, Malaysian Airlines) is not available for a contact.

If you were a journalist and you heard a plane had gone missing, what would you do?  My guess is that you would contact the airline.  If the airline does not respond, you still have a story, but now you need to speak to someone else.  You’ll try and speak to relatives of passengers, anyone connected to the airline, and then pretty much any ‘expert’ you can find.

‘Experts’ are just one hairline away from ‘fanatics’ in whatever they spend their livelihood peddling. If you ask the UFO expert what happened to the plane, you’re pretty sure they are going to say it was abducted by aliens.

The airline has now lost control of the story and worse still don’t have a seat at the table.  They created a media vacuum, the media filled it, all control is lost.


2 – Communication Medium

Let’s just assume you’re single.  You start dating someone and after a few dates you decide this is not something you want to continue.  Do you:

  1. meet with them to explain the situation
  2. call them up and explain the situation
  3. send a text message

Time is important, and cultural differences aside, it is best not to text people information that is pertinent to their or other people’s well being. 

I mean, come on, even the most positive text messages can be miss-interpreted.

Use a step method.  Send a text (simplest, quickest medium) to reach people, to let them know there is a recorded message update, or a meeting going to happen (if logistically suitable), but don’t send the text message to communicate the information.

3 – Proactive Crisis Communication Plan

No company that has ever been in the media should be without a proactive crisis communication plan. Here’s why…

First off, most media coverage is of companies that have already been in the media.  If your company has not previously appeared in the media, then you’re not immediately news worthy.  The more you have been in the media, the more news-worthy you become.  People are interested and thus the story continues. For the most news-worthy people / organizations, just try sneezing.

Second, is risk assessment.  If you deal with thousands of customers, control any devises that could cause harm, are subject to uncontrollable forces (natural or otherwise) then you have to know that adverse things will happen – it’s just a matter of time. Maybe you should take that into consideration and get ready now.

Third, we’re back to time.  Those precious minutes between the plane being lost and expected arrival time is about enough time to contact the key people and find the proactive crisis communication plan. It is NOT enough time to think of a strategy, get consensus, train your team, produce media tools, reach out to media, etc etc.

Producing a proactive crisis communication plan today will pay dividends in the future.  Crisis Communication training now is the same. 

You know if you’re news-worthy, you know if you are at risk and you know what to do to save yourself – so take the appropriate actions now.

While our thoughts are with the passengers and their families – we’re not shedding a tear for the communications of Malaysian Airlines.  As an organization they did know what they should have done, they had the opportunity to do it, but someone decided that they didn’t have the time or money to get a proactive crisis communications plan in place and train staff accordingly.  That was a very costly decision. 

We just hope others benefit from it.