The world is watching Malaysia Airlines: lessons in crisis management

The world is watching Malaysia Airlines: lessons in crisis management

For Malaysia Airlines, every hour counts as it deals with the loss of flight MH370 with 227 passengers and 12 crew on-board.

The first 48 hours of a crisis are the most critical for an organisation as it aims to reassure people that it can deal with, and resolve, the crisis.

It is in this time period that people will decide whether or not to support the organisation in trouble. A failure to act decisively and with leadership can result in inflaming outrage and blame.

For Malaysia Airlines, that time is now up. It is now entering a reputational minefield.

Flight MH370 lost contact with air traffic controllers at 2:40am local time (5:40am AEDT) on Saturday after it left Kuala Lumpur and headed for Beijing.

The worst-case scenario of an accident is compounded by the uncertainty of what happened, where it happened and why it happened. There are so many questions but few answers.

In the context of crisis management and communication, this information vacuum equates to a doomsday situation for the airline.

Dealing with a crisis

Although scholars are yet to agree on a definition of a crises, each event shares common themes – surprise, uncertainty, danger, reputation and relationships. All these facts have come to bear on Malaysia Airlines.

Crises can impact on individuals, families, organisations, communities and even nations.

Unprepared, organisations often collapse under the weight of three crisis realities – a lack of information, a lack of time and a lack of resources.

This creates what has been termed a ‘crisis smog’, where organisational leaders are blinded by pressure they have never previously experienced.

An effective response to a crisis demands accurate, timely and trusted information. Armed with the facts, an organisation can address many of the issues that surface in the hours after a disaster.

Information helps reduce the outrage and the blame felt by victims and relatives. Information helps people make sense of what happened, and information forms the foundation of the recovery process for all involved.

But Malaysia Airlines is facing a “black swan” event – an unprecedented and unexpected situation.

The reaction so far

The airline’s senior management has done the right thing in fronting the media early on and releasing the passenger list.

Some things are known but many questions still remain – in particular, how could a modern Boeing 777-200 vanish at 35,000 feet over the South China Sea without any distress signal before impact?

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