Social Media: Crisis Communication Preserver or Buster?

By: Sijie Jessie Li

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A text message sent from Malaysia Airlines to the families

How would you feel when you get this text message after knowing you just lost your family because of an air crash? The Malaysia Airlines has been globally criticized because of its poor crisis communication after the crash happened. The text message on the left was sent from Malaysia Airlines to the families of the missing victims of flight MH370, when it disappeared on its journey to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, March 8th 2014, with 227 passengers and 12 crew members on-board. According to The Drum, the airlines claimed that most of the families had already been informed in person and by telephone, and that “SMSs were used only as an additional means of communicating.” Seriously? A national airline chooses to use text message to communicate with families when faced with such a serious issue? Notifying families of something on this tragic is not only careless but is sickening to the people they should have taken the most care of to support. One of the ways to deal with upset customers in crisis communication is Speaking Like a Human, according to Andy Sernovitz. The only thing worse than ignoring upset customers is to respond with a canned corporate response.

There is no doubt that the Malaysia Airlines was dealing with an unprecedented situation, in an age where news travels faster, and trough more different channels than even Superhero could keep up with.

However, they made several crucial mistakes that could have been avoided with the right strategy. Here are two of them:

1. Respond Quickly. While facing negative word of mouth, time is not on your side. The longer you wait to respond, the angrier the customer will get, and the more possible others will pick up on the issue and spread the negative buzz. “For evil news rides fast, while good news baits later,” quote from John Milton. The Malaysia Airlines didn’t act swiftly enough, nor did they stay on top of the issue by providing updates, or even just communicating. A mysterious situation like this is a ready-made media firestorm, making it all the more important to communicate continuously and consistently.

  1. Have a plan in place. You can’t predict what kind of crisis will strike, of course. But if your reputation is damaged, you need to have a plan to handle the fallout and repair the damage. The Malaysia Airlines was not adequately prepared. For a “crisis” like this, they should have a basic plan of operations and way of communication. This should be a system that can be put in place with modifications if needed no matter what form the crisis takes.

It’s been over one year since the tragedy happened. The Malaysia Airlines still and will continue to deal with the reverberation of this tragedy for years that lie ahead. How would you suggest they change the course of their communications now and begin to repair the damage that has already been done to their overall reputation?

This Article Has 3 Comments
  1. Rudy O. says:

    Jessie,

    Thanks for writing about MH370. I’m Malaysian. I was born and raised there. In fact I was in Malaysia when this tragic disaster took place. In 23 years of my life, as far as I remember, I think MH370 incident was one of the most depressing phases that my country had to go through, ever since we gained independence in 1957.

    However, I agree 100% with all your points. While the situation was indeed unprecedented, I believe they could have done much better. If their crisis management could be quantitatively evaluated, I personally think they would score horribly in terms of communication (that text message, yes, that was awful. I was both mad and embarrassed when I saw that in the news). I think the incompetence could be partly blamed upon the annoying bureaucratic procedures outlined by certain authorities. There were just way too many cooks preparing the soup; hence the lack of inefficiency in their decision-making process.

    Nonetheless, despite the flaws here and there, I have to say that I am proud of the way they handle the issue. A lot of improvements are necessary, but let’s just hope that they can get there and fix the damage that was uncalled for.

  2. Cody Koenig says:

    I agree with you Malaysia Airlines response was canned. It’s evident that Malaysia Airlines didn’t have any idea how to handle this situation.

    Therefore, it’s justified to say Malaysia Airlines should have had a more detailed crisis communication plan.

    I recommend that: Instead of a text-message, Malaysia Airlines should have called the families to inform them. A text-message is insincere and can be misread. A conversation on the phone, could have been more sincere and appropriate. In addition to a voice conversation with the families, Malaysia Airlines should have set up a hotline for families to call to receive up-to-date information on the situation.

    Because of how Malaysia Airlines handled the situation, it’s safe to say they have immensely hurt its reputation.

    Unfortunately, in the social age, everyone has access to social media, which makes the importance of responding to situations quickly essential for airlines. While, airlines might not always be the first to break the news, it’s important for them to communicate situations in a timely manner.

  3. Jennifer Vance says:

    This was such an incredibly sad situation. Moms, dads, children, spouses, friends, and all forms of loves ones were lost on the Malaysia Airline’s crash. I was not aware that there response to this terrible occurrence, was to send a text message out to families and friends. It is almost unfathomable to me that anyone would even consider this an acceptable response.

    I think one of the key points in your post is when you referred to Andy Sernovitz, who emphasized the importance of “Speaking Like a Human.” There is great importance in doing this, and having responses embody the qualities which an actual person might have in relation to the situation. In this particular case, sending a text message to worried families is an incredibly corporate response. There is no mourning or sorrowful tone, rather an abrupt and incredibly disturbing statement.

    This bad choice made by Malaysia Airlines will always be a part of the company’s representation for years to come.

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