One of the basic rules about crisis communications is that in the early stages of an incident, you must only provide the facts and not speculate on what might be. While people are always hungry for information, communicators must be disciplined about staying with what is confirmed so that they can maintain credibility as the crisis unfolds.
In today’s digital world, where news spreads quickly and misinformation can live on forever, this rule is even more critical. Case in point? The executives at Malaysian Airlines and Malaysian government leaders who are feeling, once again, the impact of poor communications around the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the plane that vanished in March 2014.
Recently a wing part from a Boeing 777 was found on Reunion Island, east of Madagascar. That is the same model of plane as MH370 and MH370 is the only known Boeing 77 that is missing. Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, announced that the part was “conclusively confirmed” to be from the missing plane.
One might expect this news to bring, if not joy, then at least some closure and resolution to the friends and family of the 239 people who were aboard the flight. Instead, it has brought another wave of anger and frustration because people do not believe the prime minister. French officials, who are doing additional analysis of the wing part, have only said that there a “very high probability” that the part is from MH370, and won’t confirm without more research.
It is understandable for the Malaysian officials to want to close this matter, but by making a definitive announcement while others are holding off for more information, they have reignited the anger that their initial handling of sharing information around the plane’s disappearance set off.
Among the errors were that 16 days after the disappearance, Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government sent victims’ family members a text message telling them that the plane was believed lost in the southern Indian Ocean and that everyone on board was dead instead of contacting them personally.
In addition, the final words from the cockpit that Malaysian authorities released on March 17 were later contradicted. The Malaysian military didn’t immediately notice radar signatures of what was believed to have been MH370, which delayed response time in the critical early days of the search. A report released in April 2014 highlighted problems in communication between air traffic control centers and Malaysia Airlines critical to the search.
Many of these failures are being reported again, 19 months later, with the news of the plane part that was recently found. Of course the Malaysian Airlines executives and the government officials didn’t want to say, “We don’t know anything.” It is normal to want to try to provide some information, especially when family members want to know how their loved ones simply vanished. It is incredibly difficult to have to say, over and over, in this case for more than a year, that you simply don’t have the answers. With lives at stake, “we are trying,” doesn’t seem like enough.
However, in trying to provide comfort, the credibility and reputation of these groups were severely damaged—perhaps even beyond repair in the minds of some of the relatives of the missing. And since everything lives online forever, the mistakes of the past are brought up again in the new chapter.
The lessons moving forward? First, everyone would have been much better served by staying with the facts, even if they were few, so that the families would have confidence in the news they were receiving as it developed. Second, and perhaps more important, crises unresolved can live forever in a world where old news can make new news at the drop of a hat.
Melissa Arnoff is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and a contributing author to Tomorrow.