Trade and industry | Asia, Southeast Asia

27 April 2017

The mishandling of communications with the public and victims’ families following MH370’s disappearance only exacerbated an already dire situation, write Jensen Moore and Robert Pritchard.

Malaysia Airlines’ handling of the crisis since the 8 March 2014 disappearance of flight MH370 has been marred by a lack of transparent communication, a poor relationship with the victims’ families, and the abrupt and badly-communicated suspension of the search.

Though the airlines promised “open” and “transparent” communications in its press releases and media statements following the disappearance, the communication efforts have been anything but. Over the last few years, Malaysia Airlines has been accused of dumping information on the public without providing context, refusing to address questions and concerns and hiding investigation data. In addition, the airline had a fraught relationship with the victims’ families and even removed them from search talks. Now the airline has inexplicably ended the search without communicating with the victim’s families after promising from the beginning to provide “its utmost to provide support to the affected family members.”

It comes as no surprise then, that Malaysian Airlines’ financial fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. Amid the speculation and rumour regarding what went wrong on the flight, tensions between Malaysia and China grew increasingly tense, as two-thirds of the 239 passengers on the flight were Chinese nationals.

Lawsuits brought against Malaysia Airlines by the victims’ families have had a negative influence on both revenue and reputation. Revenue dropped 12 per cent in 2014 with Malaysia Airlines reporting a net loss of 576 million ringgit ($170 million) directly after the disappearance. Talks of privatising the company emerged as customers continued to flock to other airlines.

More on this: Is the push to make airlines more competitive compromising safety?

Public sentiment analysis of Twitter mentions of #MH370 and #MA370 immediately following the 22 January announcement to suspend the search indicated 94 percent negative mentions of Malaysia Airlines.

Each of these factors is intrinsically linked to public trust in the organisation. The explicit promise by Malaysia Airlines of transparency and openness followed by “no comment” and the withholding of investigation details were the first indications that the airline was not perceived as trustworthy. The brusque end of the search without including victims’ families in the discussion or decision is likely the final straw for many potential investors and patrons of the airline.

Nature abhors a vacuum and there are sources only too ready to fill the void with inaccurate information, speculation and conspiracy theories. Our research shows that the lack of transparency created a situation where the public filled in ambiguous reports with rumours. These rumours ranged from the missing flight being shot down by the US, to being sucked into a black hole, seized by the Illuminati or attacked by aliens. We suggest quick responses and complete disclosures would have alleviated many of the most ridiculous rumours.

Furthermore, when information was provided, the nature of the Malaysia Airlines responses ranged from what Coombs in Situational Crisis Communication Theory identifies as diversionary responses (attempting to shift the public gaze to something else) to defensive responses (attempting to focus on issues with the victims’ families during the search). The selection of defensive strategies, rather than expressing concern, condolences and support, often serves to alienate the public.

In addition, in what we consider a diversionary response, 39 exchanges (three pages) between the airplane pilot and Air Traffic Control at Kuala Lumpur were released to the public. These were distributed without context for what “normal” communications should be and not released until more than 20 days after the MH370 disappearance. Not only does this not fit into what is considered a timely crisis communication response, but flooding the public with non-contextual information also impedes trust. This “data dump” also served to increase rumours regarding the flight and led to fewer public social media posts about the flight containing factual information.

More on this: Missing MH370 to remain a mystery

Indiscriminate information dumped on the public without perspective, meaning and background creates another source of ambiguity. That again leads to rumours and speculation and a loss of public trust. Attempts at transparency must be couched within the provision of purposeful information that helps the public make sense of the situation.

Finally, Malaysia Airlines allowed the Malaysian government to handle much of the communication (in many cases releasing bad news for the airline), which may have increased perceptions of dishonesty, decreased public trust and certainly indicated a total lack of transparency. A better approach for organisations is to handle their own crisis communications.

When making the decision regarding crisis actions, organisational leaders must take into account the owners and shareholders, the public affected, and the greater public at large. Ethical decisions should not simply reflect the organisation’s self-interests. In our view, the public most directly affected by the crisis – the victims’ families – are the ones Malaysia Airlines needs to assuage. Calling off the search without their involvement certainly does not do this. Communications by Malaysia Airlines immediately following the flight’s disappearance that promised a continued search for MH370 should have been honoured. Another round of negative effects on the airline’s revenue and reputation is likely to follow.

For communications to succeed, the public must trust the communicator and the organisation. This means spokespersons and organisations must be open, honest, and transparent. They cannot provide the public with alternative or ambiguous truths or diversions. Organisational reputation – and revenues – hinge on truthful discourse, especially during times of crises.

This project was supported by a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from The Arthur W. Page Center at the Penn State College of Communications under Page Legacy Scholar Grant. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pennsylvania State University.

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