Like most people I’ve been gripped by the mystery of what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Until the black box is recovered this will be a story that ‘has legs’ in the media and will not go away. The agony for the families affected is clear to see from the pictures beamed around the world. Anyone with a shred of humanity can’t fail to be moved by the plight of loved ones desperate for hope and good news. Sadly, this didn’t happen.
I’ve studied the public relations activity surrounding the news and in particular the responses and reactions by Malaysian Airlines and the Malaysian authorities.
Hishammuddin Hussein, the acting transport minister, led the press conferences. It’s fair to say he’s not come over as well as he had hoped.
It seems to me that the Malaysian authorities made eight critical basic PR mistakes to create a public relations disaster which will last for generations.
When the Chinese state-run media is able to criticise the openness of the Malaysian authorities you know you’ve got communication problems.
It is fair to say that this type of story – on this scale – is unprecedented but that doesn’t avoid the fact that the communications and public relations approach was a disaster from the outset.
The catalogue of basic errors can be summed up in eight critical basic PR mistakes which other organisations (not just airlines) should take heed of.
1) Failure to grasp the level of interest in the story. From the outset it was clear the Malaysians had underestimated the global interest that an airline disaster creates. If the same were to happen in the UK I’m confident that basic staples like the size of the press conference room would be large enough to accommodate the hundreds of journalists attending. Every press conference was shambolic.
2) Inconsistent information was a key feature of the dialogue between media and authorities. Sure, the story was a fast evolving feast but it’s crucial that leaders are able to stick to the facts and not get side-tracked by theories and rumours. The ‘open forum’ format of a press conference is all well and good when the facts are clear. Concurring with wild speculation about suicides, terrorism and rogue passengers was a howler.
3) Forgetting the human touch. The families of the missing passengers were kept separate and penned elsewhere by being shoved at the back of the room (if they were allowed in at all). The dehumanising spectacle of security forces bundling upset, emotional family members in the gaze of the world’s media was a jaw-dropping PR disaster and does nothing to reflect on the Malaysian government.
4) Poor spokespeople. The golden rule of crisis management is to ensure cool-headed, calm rational people are well briefed. What we got was a couple of abrasive and flippant characters running the show.
5) Too proud to get outside help. Despite the fact Malaysian Airlines employs a number of PR agencies it decided to cut the professionals out and go it alone. This was a mistake. Brands should seek external advice from crisis management consultants who can bring a detached, clinical view of the situation. Also, it means that if the PR is poorly handled – the agency can be blamed rather than the brand or organisation.
6) Speaking on the hoof. The Chamberlain-esque image of Hishammuddin Hussein, unfolding crumpled piece of paper and holding it aloft victoriously is one that will go down in the annals of PR folklore.
7) Death by email. There is no sensible reason to communicate the ‘probable’ death of a family member via SMS. I need not expand on how much of a PR faux pas this is. In fact, it’s not even a PR issue – it’s a human issue.
8) Talking and walking. Time should be allocated for the media to ask questions in a sensible format. Allowing themselves to be trawled by swarms of media contact – and then engaging and speculating further whilst on the way out of the venue was a classic mistake. “Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Then shut up.” Should have been the mantra.
The case of missing flight MH370 will be discussed for years ahead. Something also tells me the lessons drawn from the PR activity surrounding the mystery will also be discussed by public relations consultants in terms of crisis management handling.
Mainly as fine example of what not to do.