Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Crisis Communications – A text message was not a great idea, but what where the alternatives?

So the story is a sad one, but it is believed that Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, missing for more than two weeks, went down somewhere over the Indian ocean with all lives lost.

Now I appreciate that there are more important things to worry about than the PR response from Malaysia Airlines, but part of their response hit the headlines earlier on in the week.

Generally I think their crisis response has been good – in very difficult circumstances and with very little information to work with (the plane was lost, there wasn’t much else to go with) they continued with daily press conferences and shared everything they had to share, even when it was just theories – they fed the 24 hour news monster. Pretty much everything they could have done was done.

But then came the text message. Once all the evidence was gathered the conclusion was reached that it is beyond reasonable doubt that MH370 crashed into the sea. However, they choose to share this conclusion with the families of the passengers via a text message.

A text message?!? My (and most of Twitter’s) reaction wasn’t very positive. A callous and unsympathetic way to notify families that their loved ones were lost. But then I started to wonder about the alternatives. In a 24-hour digital news world, how do you reach hundreds of stakeholders (in this case the families), who are scattered all over the world with the same news at the same time. Clearly they need to hear the news before the main press conference announcing it to the world, so how do you avoid time differences, different locations, and the journalists that are camped alongside the families?

Could local representatives share the bad news? Possibly, but is a faceless executive from the local office really any better? And logistically how do you reach everyone at the same time (once some of families have been given the news, it’s likely to reach the press, and then the risk is some families hearing through the news/TV – not what you want to happen). A telephone call is better than a text, but unless it’s a massive conference call (which would have to be across time zones – would you want to be told your parents were most likely dead at 3am in the morning?) you’d need an army of competent staff to make the calls and deal with questions and grieving families.

The more I think about it the more I’m unsure what is the best answer. A better response would have been to ask families how they would want to be communicated with and be prepared to use a number of different channels dependent on response. This means that some families may get the news via a text message, some maybe an email, some a call and some face to face. While hardly ideal, it must be better than a blanket text message. This sort of crisis would (should) have been at the top of any scenario planning, so communicating with hundreds of families from all across the globe should have been expected, and the relevant systems should already have been in place. It would be a logistical nightmare, but simply sending them all a text message is not the answer.

Oh, and where there are journalists and cameras present with relatives (as with the group of Chinese families in the hotel), you need to control the press and don’t let them in the same room as the families receiving the news of lost families. It does not make for positive TV.

If you want to read more about Malaysia Airline’s overall crisis response there is a good review over at Agnes Day:

And here’s a great example of decent crisis communications and the importance of scenario planning:

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