Malaysia Airlines: A lesson in crisis management

The five steps the airline should take to change public perception.

If ever an airline has suffered from bad press it is Malaysia Airlines. It’s had two of the biggest air disasters in history in a period of four months—MH370 (which has yet to be found) and now MH17 shot down by a missile over Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists.

Even before these twin disasters, the airline was experiencing severe financial losses.

The airline’s crisis response to the disappearance of MH370 was one of the worst in history (with no cohesive communications plan and a lack of sympathy for the family members of the lost passengers). Now with this latest disaster, can the brand survive and what does it need to do?

In the short term, the brand is being helped by the media coverage over the downing of MH17. The focus is not on Malaysia Airlines but rather on Russia and the separatists who are presumed to have shot it down. As outrage mounts over the tragedy and the way the Russian-backed separatists are allowing access to the wreckage and the victims’ remains, mention of Malaysia Airlines has been in passing.

Also working in the airline’s favor is that with acts of terrorism, most people are willing to focus their attention and anger on the perpetrators rather than the airlines. For instance after 9/11, neither United Airlines nor American Airlines suffered any brand damage despite the fact that their planes were hijacked.

Additionally, Malaysia Airlines seems to have learned from its mishandling of the MH370 crisis. This time it promptly revealed all the information it had available when MH17 disappeared. The airline’s social media channels carried the same message that was being given officially. The company also announced it will be fully refunding anyone who booked a flight on the airline but no longer feels comfortable traveling on it.

Short term, the airline is surviving and has handled the crisis adequately. Yet the real test for Malaysia Airlines will be in the days and weeks ahead. As the stories begin to shift from the crisis in the Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, the West’s response to Russia, and such, the focus will shift again to Malaysia Airlines. All the stories about MH370 will resurface and criticism about the airline will be intense as will scrutiny.

What should Malaysia Airlines do?

  1. Bring in an outside communications agency to work on the airline’s short-term and long-term branding and crisis response. The airline has been reluctant to do so and it has shown in some of its responses.
  2. Select a spokesman who can empathize and address concerns that consumers and the media have about the airline. This person needs to show not only the airline’s record of overall safety but how it has taken the concerns about the airline seriously and the steps it’s taking to correct these issues.
  3. Take out full-page ads in the newspapers in its top markets to address the latest tragedy, express sympathy, and outline where the airline will go from here.
  4. Interview former passengers expressing their confidence in Malaysia Airlines to use in promotions. One of the first things I noticed after the downing of MH17 was the support that many former passengers were expressing for the airline.
  5. Make sure its social media strategy reinforces the same message used in traditional media.

Malaysia Airlines is in an unenviable position. It will take a cohesive crisis communications strategy and branding effort to change public perception, but it can be done.

David E. Johnson is the CEO of Strategic Vision, LLC. A version of this article first appeared on CommPRO.biz.

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