Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Malaysia Airlines disappearance rewriting the issues management text book

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is quickly becoming a new chapter in the crisis management text book.

Three days after the Boeing 777-200 disappeared from the skies around Malaysia and south of Vietnam, the absence of wreckage or any sign of what really happened is only fuelling unhelpful speculation.

That speculation is deepening the distress for families and friends of the 239 souls on board as the reality sinks in that the journey for "closure" isn't even close to beginning.

Malaysia Airline officials have ticked the first box of crisis management by keeping families and the media constantly informed despite an eerily unchanged message that there is nothing new to report.

With journalists under pressure to feed the 24/7 news cycle, reports from both Kuala Lumpur and Beijing have had nothing tangible to add apart from unconfirmed talk and images of distressed family members.

In today's world of hi-tech communication, it feels unusual not to have instant reasons and outcomes given public expectations that television news will produce instant pictures of wreckage and final words from a black box recorder.

The social media generation of Facebook and Twitter have been platforms for the fuelling of speculation that ranges from terrorism to Bermuda Triangle comparisons to extra-terrestrial intervention.

One of Australia's top crisis management experts, Michael Smith of Inside PR, says the Malaysia Airlines disappearance is testing the skills and experience of crisis management professionals.

"I don't think it gets much bigger or any more difficult than this one because there's a paucity of information" Mr Smith told the ABC.

"One of the ways to manage a crisis effectively is to get as much information out as you as quickly as you can and as regularly as you can. But here there is little or no information and that makes the mood grimmer and grimmer and the prognosis grimmer and grimmer.

"It's also a testing crisis to manage because the audience is so broad. The families are from all over the world and its difficult to communicate with them directly.

"But to the poor families who are grieving for the victims every second is very, very painful."

Mr Smith, a former editor of The Age, says that unlike most crises, the lack of any immediate "closure" or party to blame is prolonging the agony for families and friends.

"Familes do want closure, they want certainty and unfortunately it's human nature that people want someone to blame," Mr Smith explains.

"But there's no evidence to even point the finger at what has caused this and you can understand the anger building up amongst not just the families but anyone who is observing this crisis."

However, Mike Smith says despite criticism from China over a lack of action, Malaysian Airlines has followed all the critical rules of crisis management.

"I think they've done extremely well under all the circumstances because they've had nothing to provide but they're providing nothing regularly," he said.

"People managing a crisis like this have to be very careful not to speculate because they can go a step far and say something that ultimately turns out to be dead wrong."

Mr Smith - regarded as one of the "go-to" professionals in a crisis - agrees the crisis management text book will be rewritten to reflect the Malaysian Airlines disaster.

"Every major disaster brings a bit of a bit of an update and a rewrite because technology changes, politics changes, the globe changes," Mr Smith said.

"Other issues are already emerging from this such as passport controls. There are learnings from every crisis and it makes it easier to handle the next one."

Crisis management professionals and executives from Malaysia Airlines know they're in for the long haul with evidence, outcomes and ultimate blame out of reach as the mystery continues.