We Simply Do Not Have the Answer: A Case Study in Ineffective Crisis Communication
“We understand that it has been a difficult time for all the families…We find ourselves in a difficult position. I repeat: the question that the families principally want answered, is the question we simply do not have the answer to – namely, where their loved ones are, and where is MH370.”
-Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysian Minister of Defense,
March 31, 2014[i]
There is no good way to find out a loved one has perished.
It is a problem that every human being will inevitably face in life, and no amount of preparation or awareness of the situation will truly make the sting of grief any easier. However, for nearly a thousand individuals around the world, the wait to find out what happened to their loved ones has lasted for three years. And the way that these individuals found out that their loved ones almost certainly perished came after a prolonged period of confusion, conflicting information, and mistrust, and was delivered in one of the most impersonal ways possible. I am referring to the loved ones of the passengers and crew on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Three years ago today, on March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) departed from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 am local time and was expected to arrive in Beijing at 6:30 am. However, at approximately 2:40 am, Malaysia Airlines lost contact with the plane. Since that morning, Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian government, and international search agencies and governments from across the globe were in a frantic search for answers as to what happened to this flight, and the 239 souls onboard.[ii] That is until January of this year, when the investigation into what happened to flight MH370 ended with little to no answers[iii]
The international search for the plane, however, is not what interests me here. Rather, how Malaysian Airlines and the Malaysian government communicated to the people most invested in the answer to what happened to flight MH370, the families and friends of those on board, is.
On paper, Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government said and did everything right. The government amassed an international force to help with the search. Both parties repeatedly expressed sympathy and support to the families and utilized best practices around setting up support systems for families. However, Malaysia Airlines failed to utilize two key communication principles: follow right words with right actions and connecting to the audience on its terms. As result, trust and confidence eroded with the loved ones of those on board, and Malaysia Airlines was judged harshly for both their words and actions.
About five hours after Malaysia Airlines lost contact with flight MH370, Malaysia Airlines released a brief, business-like statement to break this news. “Malaysia Airlines confirms that flight MH370 has lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control at 2:40 am today (8 March 2014),” the statement read. It continued, “Malaysia Airlines is currently working with the authorities who have activated their Search and Rescue team to locate the aircraft. The airline will provide regular updates on the situation.” The airline also listed a specific phone number for family and friends of passengers and crews on board to call.[iv]
An hour and a half later, as the airline and the government’s teams continued the search, Malaysia Airlines released a second statement, reiterating the information already shared. The statement repeated the same message about the airline deploying Search and Rescue teams, but this time stated that the airline was calling next-of-kin for those on the flight and listed directions for next-of-kin going to the airport in Kuala Lumpur. The statement noted, “Focus of the airline is to work with the emergency responders and authorities and mobilize its full support. Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members.”[v]
An hour and a half later, Malaysia Airlines released a third statement which again reiterated the information provided in the first two statements with more specific information about the fourteen nationalities of the passengers, the majority of whom were Chinese, and the credentials of MH370’s pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid.[vi]
By this point, media from around the world began to release stories about the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370.
Malaysia Airline’s fourth media statement at came at 4:30 pm local time. The statement included new information about the search and about what Malaysia Airlines was doing to support the friends and families of the 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers.[vii] It stated, “We are deploying our “Go Team” to Beijing which will depart Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 4:30 pm with a team of caregivers and volunteers to assist the family members of the passengers.” [viii]
The statement concluded with a plea to the media, asking for their patience and prudence in publishing stories on the flight’s disappearance. Malaysia Airlines stated, “The airline will provide regular updates on the situation. There are many unvalidated reports out in the media and Malaysia Airlines strongly urges the media and the public at large to only report from the official statements from Malaysia Airlines and the Government of Malaysia.”[ix]
By the end of the first day of the search, as the governments of Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam mobilized, the plane was not found, nor any evidence of a crash. Nearly 24 hours after Air Traffic Control lost contact with the plane, Malaysia Airlines released a new statement. “Malaysia Airlines humbly asks all Malaysians and people around the world to pray for flight MH370,” the statement began. “We are dispatching all information as and when we receive it.”[x]
The statement concluded with a new message about what the airline’s priority was. The statement read, “Our sole priority now is to provide all assistance to the families of the passengers and our staff. We are also working closely with the concerned authorities in the search and rescue operation.”[xi] Therefore, 24 hours after the plane disappeared the priority shifted from finding the plane to providing assistance and support to the families of those on MH370.
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya also emphasized this new priority in a statement a day after the flight disappeared. “We however acknowledge that the most affected group in this incident is the families of those onboard,” Yahya said. “As such, our primary focus at this point in time is to care for the families. This means providing them with timely information, travel facilities, accommodation, means and emotional support.”[xii]
Over the next few days, new information was reported by the media, fueling speculation about what happened to the plane. For example, the media reported that at least two passengers used stolen passports to get on the flight.[xiii] Another story came a day later when new information emerged that years before First Officer Hamid allegedly entertained two female passengers in the cockpit, including posing for photos with them, while co-piloting a flight.[xiv] With each new report, speculation grew. Was it terrorism? Pilot error? A foreign attack?
However, while Malaysia Airlines would share new information about the search and rescue operation, they remained relatively silent on the information about the investigation and the theories reported by the media. In regards to reports of the stolen passports, Malaysia Airlines responded in a brief media statement, “We are receiving many inquiries about how the passengers with stolen passports purchased their tickets. We are unable to comment on this matter as this is a security issue. We can however confirm that we have given all of the flight details to the authorities for further review.”[xv]
When the story about the First Officer’s allegedly unprofessional behavior broke, again Malaysia Airlines responded with little new information. “Malaysia Airlines has become aware of the allegations being made against First Officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid which we take very seriously. We are shocked by these allegations,” the airline commented. The airline also took their response one step farther:
As you are aware, we are in the midst of a crisis, and we do not want our attention to be diverted. We also urge the media and general public to respect the privacy of the families of our colleagues and passengers… The welfare of both the crew and passenger’s families remain our focus. At the same time, the security and safety of our passengers is of the utmost importance to us.[xvi]
Although the airline went through all of the appropriate steps to support the logistical needs families of the passengers and crew on MH370, the airline’s earlier promise to provide timely information seemed unfulfilled. The disconnect between the information reported by the airline and the information shared by the media began to cause distrust of Malaysia Airlines. Within those first few days, more than 100 family members signed a petition demanding that Malaysia Airlines tell them the “truth”.[xvii]
On March 15, 2014, both Malaysia Airlines and the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, tried to put their communication, or lack thereof, into perspective. He stated, “We understand the desperate need for information on behalf of the families and those watching around the world. But we have a responsibility to the investigation and the families to only release information that has been corroborated. And our primary motivation has always been to find the plane.”[xviii]
Malaysia Airline’s statement was of a similar vein. It stated:
Our absolute priority at all times has been to support the authorities leading the multinational search for MH370, so that we can finally provide the answers which the families and the wider community are waiting for… We remain absolutely committed to sharing confirmed information with family members and the wider public in a fully transparent manner. However given the nature of the situation, the importance of validating new information before it is released into the public domain is paramount.[xix]
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysian Minister of Defense and Acting Transport Minister, also made similar remarks the next day. “Every day brings new angles, especially as we are refocusing and expanding the search area – and as always, we have a responsibility to release only information that has been corroborated and verified,” Hussein explained. “I understand the hunger for new details. But we do not want to jump to conclusions. Out of respect to the families, and the process itself, we must wait for the investigation to run its course.”[xx]
However, as more information emerged and was confirmed, specifically that the plane’s tracking system was deliberately disabled and that the plane was intentionally diverted off course, family members’ distrust and suspicion that the airline was holding pertinent information back intensified. “Why won’t they tell us the truth?” asked the sister of one of the passengers on the flight. “We are so anxious just waiting here.”[xxi]
On March 24, 2014, the situation changed. After weeks of criticism that the airline appeared to be holding back information from the loved ones, Malaysia Airlines tried to course-correct by communicating more transparently. Earlier that day, a high-level Malaysia Airlines team met with families in Beijing for a detailed briefing on the operation and investigation, lasting more than eight hours, and a similar 12-hour long briefing was held in Kuala Lumpur.[xxii]
But that evening, family members of the passengers and crew were sent the following message:
Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume that MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, new analysis of satellite data suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean. On behalf of all of us at Malaysia Airlines and all Malaysians, our prayers go out to all the loved ones of the 226 passengers and of our 13 friends and colleagues at this enormously painful time. We know there are no words that we or anyone else can say which can ease your pain. We will continue to provide assistance and support to you, as we have done since MH370 first disappeared in the early hours of 8 March, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The ongoing multinational search operation will continue, as we seek answers to the questions which remain. Alongside the search for MH370, there is an intensive investigation, which we hope will also provide answers. We would like to assure you that Malaysia Airlines will continue to give you our full support throughout the difficult weeks and months ahead. Once again, we humbly offer our sincere thoughts, prayers and condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.[xxiii]
While the content of the message itself what would be appropriately expected in a situation like this, what made this message not only inappropriate but viewed as callous is that it was delivered to many of the family members via text message.
Some of the family members, on hearing the news, collapsed and were taken to the hospital; some sobbed so hard they needed help walking. Some relatives were so distrustful of Malaysian Airlines and Malaysian government that they initially believed they were lying. “The Malaysian government is lying to us,” one relative said from Beijing. “We demand the truth,” another woman told reporters.[xxiv]
“This strikes me as efficient, but very inappropriate,” Karla Vermeulen, professor of psychology and assistant director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York at New Paltz said at the time. “To break that big of a piece of news, that devastating, by text seems pretty much tone deaf and insensitive.”[xxv]
The media reported the incident with similar criticism. Brian Alexander of NBC News reported, “On Monday, some received stunning news via text message: Malaysia Airlines told the relatives that the plane “has been lost and that none of those on board have survived.” It was a shocking moment – perhaps even more so for the way it was delivered.”[xxvi]
In response to the outrage and media reports about the nature of the delivery of this message, Yahya attempted to explain their reasoning. “Our sole and only motivation last night was to ensure that in the incredibly short amount of time available to us, the families heard the tragic news before the world did,” he explained. “Whenever humanly possible, we did so in person with families or via telephone, using SMS only as an additional means of ensuring fully that the nearly 1,000 family members heard the news from us and not from the media.”[xxvii]
At this point trust and confidence had already eroded between the family members of the passengers and crew and Malaysia Airlines. But delivering the messaging in this manner was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Frank Narvan of the Ethics Resource Center once defined trust as, “the natural consequence of promises fulfilled.”[xxviii] In other words, trust is the result of a key communications principle: follow right words with right actions. Malaysia Airlines, in the first days of the search, set an expectation with the loved ones of those on board that it would provide information in a timely way. Instead, Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government tried to sort through and verify information before sharing it, leaving the families of loved ones waiting for hours, then days, then weeks for news. The disconnect between the promise of timely information and the information Malaysia Airlines actually shared, the inability to follow right words with right actions, caused the loved ones of the passengers and crew on board to lose trust and confidence in the airline.
Additionally, Malaysia Airlines failed to connect to their audience on its terms. The family members of those onboard were desperate for information about what happened to their loved ones. And although both the airline and government acknowledged this, they remained silent on even partial answers to the questions of what happened to the plane on those on board. Instead, the airline and Malaysia government spent too much time on defense trying to convince the world to see it from their point of view. And then, in a last stitch effort to walk its talk by sharing information in timely and transparent way, Malaysia Airlines added insult to injury by forgetting to communicate with the loved ones as human beings. By communicating to family members and friends of passengers and crew via text message, they sacrificed communicating on a human level. Malaysia Airlines, by only communicating on their own terms, lost trust and confidence of those who mattered most in that moment.
Three years later, we still do not know what happened to flight MH370. And now, we may never know. The airline never managed to win back the trust and confidence of the loved ones on board. Meanwhile, customers fled the airline. In China, Malaysia Airlines ticket sales dropped 60% following MH370.[xxix] The airline narrowly avoided financial collapse after a second crash later that year, and had to renationalize the airline to stay afloat.[xxx] And Malaysia Airlines’ response to MH370 is judged far and wide as a crisis management and communications failure.
Sometimes the key to communicating to an audience in the midst of a tragedy, even we you do not know the answer to the question of what happened to someone’s loved one, is to communicate with them on their terms and follow right words with right actions. Unfortunately, Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government learned this lesson too late.
This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.
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