CRISIS CRITIQUES BEREFT OF UNDERSTANDING AND EMPATHY In modern crisis or emergency events, it’s clear that Public Relations pundits and the public display little patience with, or respect for, any organisation’s efforts to respond to their incident. Diligence in fact finding and verification goes against the knee-jerk criticism…and unreasonable demands of modern media (especially social media). Many stakeholders demand instant answers, even when none are available. Yet crisis scholars insist that any affected brand must try and deal principally in known facts rather than speculation. Failure to do so can have them addressing erroneous scenarios that could be immediately toxic for brand integrity, trust and rapport.
Social media adds a problematic new dimension to crisis management, explains Australian PR academic Ross Monaghan: “Social media is now a key element of the crisis information process. A gossip-based or mischievous social media post can quickly snowball, finding its way into traditional media as an ‘on the ground fact’, thereby adding to the perception that the crisis situation is out of control.” Within the first hours there was speculation about the plane’s location. One early Tweet claiming it had landed in China was picked up and reported across several social networking sites.
UNPRECEDENTED PROBLEM In Malaysia Airlines’ case, the main problem has been unprecedented; it was impossible – even with access to international partners with global satellite mapping technologies – to find the missing plane, crew and passengers. How could any organisation appear authoritative and competent in this case, and certainly when the commentariat is baying for instant resolution? Also, what can a brand ever say to meaningfully comfort distraught relatives when the brand response can’t be based on facts? In times of personal grief, many people seem uncomfortable with silence. It’s the same with media – so the void gets filled with quips, platitudes, clichés and frustrations.
The 3 R’S OF CRISIS MANAGEMENT My sense of the airlines’ PR effort is that they tried to respond by the PR book: They followed the 3 Rs of textbook disaster management; they expressed Regret, stayed non-commital over Responsibility (until the truth is actually known) and were clearly participating in Remedial Action. Australia-based crisis adviser Tony Jaques concurs; “When this is all over, the airline itself – which generally followed the IATA crisis manual to the letter – will be found overall to have acted sensitively and responsibly.” Yet still, critics – nowhere near the frontline of the communications frenzy – assail the airlines’ activities with ‘shouldas’ and shame. And it’s all too easy to propose how the airline should have done better:
COULDAS AND SHOULDAS Coulda been 100% accurate in every briefing even as the knowledge landscape was changing by the hour . Shoulda been able to prepare for a truly unprecedented mystery via better scenario planning. Coulda been 100% emotionally empathetic to relatives. Shoulda not had a pre-prepared incident web page labelled as a ‘dark site’ in its URL address Shoulda had a brand crisis newsroom; where media conference clips, audio MP3 messages, video assets, social media updates and satellite maps could be posted, search optimised and easily peer-shared, to keep situation updates clear and consistent. And off I go; like the rest of the media mouthpieces with coulds, shoulds and oughtas – yet I’m in no way privy to the pressures and parameters squeezing that under-duress brand. Tony Jaques agrees: “…the criticism from armchair experts around the world reflects very little understanding of the highly sensitive political, social and security challenges in the region.”
ACCEPTING THAT PERFECT DOESN’T EXIST Maybe we could all try accepting that a perfect rescue mission with perfect performances and perfect media and public responses is an illusion; one that exists in textbooks, not in real life situations. Even better, what if all of us in the media could show restraint just to give the brand-in-crisis room to remedy what they can? Former PRIA President Robert Masters opines that the ‘press’ could serve audiences better by sticking to real journalism principles: report the facts; don’t speculate on the unknown, nor create news for self-gratification. If the media would give the relatives room to reflect, ruminate and rage without turning their confusion into news clip and trailer fodder, might all concerned handle such a disaster just a little bit better? Remember, this is a people tragedy; people lost on the plane and distraught relatives experiencing the grief of loss. That deserves patience and respect.
As do the confused airline staff trying their best to manage the mayhem and make sense out of losing colleagues in a currently baffling true life mystery.