Here’s a conundrum. Last year was officially the safest 12 months in the history of commercial flight. Yet it also provided three tragic case studies illustrating why every airline needs a crisis communications plan.
First came Malaysia Airways flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, which disappeared over the South China Sea carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew last March and is still to be located.
As the world learned via a news conference from the Malaysian prime minister that the flight was thought to have ended in the southern Indian Ocean, it emerged that the families of passengers on board the flight had been alerted just minutes before via mass text message.
The airline was also widely criticised when poor communications to the families of missing passengers culminated in them emotionally gatecrashing a press conference to stage a protest on live television.
Four months later, Malaysia Airlines suffered another tragedy when flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine with the loss of 283 passengers and 15 crew.
Ukraine’s government came under widespread attack for the way that bodies remained strewn over the countryside near Donetsk days after the crash and the investigating Dutch Safety Board was prevented from gaining access to the site.
Three days after Christmas Day, there was more aviation tragedy as Indonesia AirAsia’s flight 8501 from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore crashed in bad weather over the Karimata Strai, killing the 155 passengers and seven crew.
This time, the airline scored well for its response, with its group chief executive Tony Fernandes travelling immediately to Surabaya and publicly consoling grieving families.
He removed his trademark red baseball cap in a sign of respect and sent a constant stream of Twitter posts expressing his sorrow and informing the world of developments in the search for the wreckage.
‘My heart bleeds for the relatives of my crew and our passangers (sic),’ he tweeted and commentators reacted kindly.
The Washington Post even wrote that the misspelling of ‘passengers’ was ‘just one of many typos that made the tweets come off as rushed and genuine and therefore credible and authentic’.
But it is it ever possible to get communications right in the event of an airline disaster? Relaying news about death is about as grim as communications can ever get.
Is it simply a task of loss mitigation? Or can reputational benefits also accrue from a well-considered and properly-executed crisis communications plan?
Donald Steel, the former BBC chief media spokesperson who now runs communications consultancy Donald Steel Public Relations, advising clients including Heathrow Airport, says all airlines have such plans and in the US they are compulsory.
However, he adds: ‘With AirAsia, we saw an outstanding leader who understands communications. The airline was doing all their usual crisis communications things, but added to that was a charismatic group chief executive who immediately took to social media and spoke very sincerely.
‘Tony Fernandes has 800,000 followers on Twitter and the public could see that his tweets were coming straight from his heart. In crisis communications, leaders have to lead from the front and get on TV and social media very quickly and show the kind of care, compassion and concern that the public expect.
‘The senior management has to be visible, showing they are in control and assuming responsibility for how the families are being cared for.’
Steel says that, while direct comparisons between the MH370 and AirAsia tragedies are misguided, AirAsia learned from the mistakes of the earlier incidents. It benefited from not having the same security considerations as the MH370 crash, which was originally thought to be a hijacking. AirAsia also did not have a large government shareholder like Malaysia Airlines, freeing it to communicate.
Malaysia Airlines also did get some things right, preparing ‘dark websites’ that immediately changed the character of its social media communications, switching its corporate red branding for a more soothing grey.
And it learned from its own mistakes, putting out announcements much more quickly and looking after the affected families much more effectively when the MH17 crash happened.
‘When an aircraft is lost, its other flights still keep running,’ stresses Steel. ‘It still has to communicate with its other customers who are flying the world and need to have confidence in it.’
Digital channels are playing a growing role in conforming to airlines’ crisis communications plans, which typically commit operators to making some kind of announcement within half an hour of a serious problem with a flight being reported.
EMPATHY AND SPEED
Paul Charles, a former global communications director at Virgin Atlantic, is now chief executive of travel and transport consultancy Perowne Charles Communications, acting for companies including Finnair and Qatar Airways and carrying out consumer PR in the UK for Malaysia Airlines, which it advised on the MH17 crash.
‘You have to have a speed of response for the initial reaction,’ he says. ‘That means having very good statements prepared. And social media is more important than ever before because when something happens it’s a global story, not a local or parochial story and you need to ensure that your social media is getting the message across as quickly as possible with humility and empathy.
‘Those airlines that don’t have good enough social media or don’t have a credible spokesperson will find it tougher to get the message across and win over the goodwill of media, passengers and relatives.
‘Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are now essential tools to do the crisis communications job. You need 24/7 communications, since your product itself is 24/7. It has replaced old fashioned communications.’
Most commentators also now accept that the MH370 disaster, which seemed to demonstrate under-preparedness by Malaysia Airlines, was actually a highly unusual tragedy due to the high levels of uncertainties which have remained to this day.
‘Malaysia Airlines got a lot of things wrong in its crisis response to flight MH370,’ says David Scane, director at Crisis Communications, part of public affairs agency Curtin & Co. ‘But it was so unprecedented and shrouded in mystery that you can forgive them for that. You can draft as many crisis strategies as you like but the idea of actually losing a plane for so long was hard to foresee.
‘You have not seen the same mistakes with AirAsia. It has shown that airline crisis communications can actually be done properly. But it hasn’t been tested in the same way. This story has been almost tied up, whereas the MH370 disaster has never had that resolution.’
Jon Chandler, partner at business management consultants Reputation Inc, who worked in public relations for British Airways for three years and currently advises Virgin Atlantic, takes this argument further, saying that the high degree of safety equipment in modern aircraft means that most causes of crashes now happen for quite sophisticated reasons.
‘The difficulty is that the circumstances of all these disasters are unique by their very nature because the level of complexity needed to cause a problem is now relatively high,’ he says.
‘People are always quick to criticise the response. But in reality, when something like this happens, it is an almost unique situation and you have to judge how the airline responds on that basis.’