Of all the things I know for certain, I know that I know nothing at all.
For twelve days, little has been certain about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Ever since it went off the grid the world has been trying to piece together the mystery of where the flight is. What’s compounding the problem is this: How do you keep people informed when you don’t know the facts yourself?
Malaysia Airlines problem isn’t that they are withholding information, but that they have no solid answers as the world continues to speculate about this tragedy. Operationally, anything that can go wrong is going wrong. But, from a communications standpoint, the airline is doing things mostly right.
First and foremost, Malaysia Airlines is being upfront. They don’t have information to communicate, but they are making sure to keep the public updated as they receive new leads. A statement on their website concludes with honesty, “For families around the world, the one piece of information they want most is the information we just don’t have: the location of MH370.” The airline is demonstrating that they know what their publics want, and acknowledging the fact that, at this time, they cannot give it to them.
Lost in the glut of coverage is the fact that Malaysia Airlines is taking care of the people who are most directly affected: the families of those on Flight 370. When they first learned that the plane did not reach its destination, the airline opened up a hot line specifically for families. When the situation became even more serious, they opened up a Support Facility Building for next of kin, complete with transportation and staff. Located in in Kuala Lumpur, the facility later became a central point for all families, local and international. For family members who could not get to Kuala Lumpur, a “high level team” was sent to Beijing and 112 caregivers were assigned to specific families.
Because of the uncertainty of the situation, Malaysia Airlines has shown where its priorities are – on the families. The airline has removed all branding from their social media sites, displaying only a grey background with its name in place of their usual graphics. Its website newsroom is filled with 14 pages of updates. The airline is trying to handle the situation with integrity. Their emphasis is on giving correct information as opposed to false hope.
They have not been as successful with the press. If this were a similar crisis involving an American airline, I believe their relationship with the press would be different. The airline would have designated one spokesperson and developed consistent messaging. We haven’t really seen strong media relations from Malaysia Airlines, which I believe has fueled criticism of the airline.
The Malaysian government further complicates the situation. They have a reputation for lacking transparency, and this has certainly played out in this tragedy. The country is dealing with its first crisis of this magnitude and they seem lost when it comes to communicating with the world. I believe the airline is doing the best it can given this culture.
Malaysia Airline is troubled by a lack of information and a subject that makes the world uneasy. This makes for a challenging public relations situation. No communications can change the fact that we simply don’t know what happened. In this situation, the best any communication professional can do is to be open, honest, compassionate and never forgot that it’s about the people.