Time – and the communication lessons from flight MH370

Sometimes, the unimaginable or unthinkable happens! I bet the specific scenario of flight MH370 has never featured in any crisis communications preparedness training sessions – a commercial aircraft disappearing for such a long stretch of time over international waters.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for our courses as we now have to factor in the unthinkable.

Failure to take into account such an extreme set of circumstances has exposed major shortcomings in the handling of the crisis communications around flight MH370. My observations aren’t intended as a critique of the various agencies – others are far better placed to do that. They could apply to some or all of the various agencies handling the situation. The plane vanished on 8 March and as I write it is now 26 March with no confirmed trace of the aircraft as the search focusses on the Indian ocean to the south west of Australia.

The failure to use time

Time is the one thing that is not on your side in a crisis as you seek initially to get back in control of the communications process. In 2014, with the technology that is available, regaining that control should be well underway within the first hour and a degree of confidence should be gained within the first four hours, in what is always likely to be a highly volatile situation.

Paradoxically, with this crisis, time is exactly what was available, but there was a gross failure to exploit this feature both to carefully craft messages and also to get in place the best and most effective intimate communication mechanisms for relating to the family and friends of victims.

Messages: The saturation media coverage of this incident overwhelmed all agencies involved in handling the crisis and was allowed to drive the communications agenda. There was an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and answers. But there were so few facts to give. And what facts there were took either several hours, or days, to verify and publish, and then some of the messages published were a mix of fact and dubious assumption. The media cannot cope with dribs and drabs of information. They want it all, and now. And in this crisis so did the family and friends of passengers. There was an information vacuum of gigantic proportions. And, tragically, the communicators failed to stick to facts and were drawn in to comment on hypotheticals. Instead of damping down the media speculation fire they threw fuel onto it.

Simple, truthful, provable facts will always win the day. They might not make the communicators heroes but they will help in the battle to regain and maintain control of the communication process. Alongside this must be a robust ability to challenge and reject ‘loose thinking’, and help people to stick with what little bits of information there are.

The failure to develop intimate communication mechanisms

Coping with immediate demands of a crisis can deflect strategic thinking about the communications process. All relationships take time to build and the aspect of trust is directly related to the duration of the relationship. Providing accurate information quickly establishes the relationship of trust between communicator and audience, in this instance the airline and relatives of passengers. But it is insufficient to sustain it.

Mechanisms: The gathering together of passenger relatives and friends usually serves to speed and smooth communication in as cool, and calm an environment as possible under the circumstances. Usually, in many scenarios, this works well. But, when the crisis drags on, involves relatives in different locations (countries), and where rumour and speculation are rife this can spell disaster.

All relationships take time to build. And this is the one aspect that was available in this crisis. There was a finite number of people on the aircraft. It should have been possible to deploy a skilled and dedicated team of trained support staff to work, ideally, on a one-to-one basis with family and friends. This would have eliminated any need to communicate with people by mass texting and would have helped individuals far more effectively, not to say anything about building the reputation of those agencies managing the crisis.

Now, is the time to learn the lessons of flight MH370 and incorporate them into our crisis communications preparations. My thoughts and prayers are with all those involved in this crisis, especially for those grieving and searching for answers.

What lessons have you learned in crisis situations?

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