The story of Malaysian Airline’s missing MH 370 airplane perhaps is a classic case of public relations gone sour. Right from the time the incident happened up to the time the company made contact with the families so as to help them go through the whole ordeal, there were serious PR flaws that ordinarily were unprecedented. To the common person, the company seemingly appeared to have managed the situation. However, there are many pointers, in the eyes of a professional public relations expert that expose the serious flaws that, if it had been properly managed, would have not escalated to the levels registered. According to the Week (2017), there were about 239 passengers on board who vanished mysteriously in the air never to be seen again. These were people with families who cared and loved them a lot. Most of them were breadwinners and therefore, this incident was the biggest blow to the families, some might not have recovered yet. The report hereinafter will make great attempts to uncover the serious public relations flaws the airline company made; tracing from the time the incident occurred till today, especially the manner in which it handled its relationship with the families of the victims. Later, through the lens of a PR expert, some recommendations on how best the company could have handled the situation are provided. Certainly, therefore, the report aims at providing a critical review of the case at hand and hopefully, it could be a resourceful guide to other companies with mission to have effective public relations policy.
The field of Public Relations has gained traction over the last decade, especially in business. But, what is Public Relation? According to Bass (no year), Public Relations is about building and maintaining trust between a company and the general public through an effective communication and relational strategy. It is upon the company to create winning opportunities in the eyes of the public as far as business performance is concerned. In fact, as a rule of thump, the story being shared to the public (and stories would still be shared even if they do not come from the company anyway) must at all times appear to be truthful and honest; cover ups can ruin the company’s image as was the case with the Malaysian airline. As mentioned earlier, there were serious PR flaws committed by the said company and the following paragraphs discuss those flaws in detail:
Now, expectedly, with such a crisis that attracted the global attention, the media was going to leave nothing to chance, including exaggerating stories to build mountains over the issue. The company was an easy prey for the media. It allowed media to run with the story that it actually sent very harsh text messages to the families of the victims notifying them of the unfortunate occurrence. These revelations had a damaging effect on the image of the company as it showed how careless and insensitive it was amid the crisis. Perhaps, it lacked properly trained PR strategists to help them manage the press.
Bass (no year) argues that it is always important to craft a powerful story that is truthful and clear and share with the public in an effective way possible. In the case of Malaysian Airline, that was lacking; instead they allowed the media to fill the void with exaggerated and even sometimes false stories about the incident. For example, the issue of the allegedly sending harsh text messages to the victims’ families would have not come to the public should they have had a carefully thought out communication plan to manage the situation. Besides, most of the times, the government authorities were seen to be at the fore front while the company took a backseat. This made the company appear less concerned with the issue and also revealed their ill preparedness as far as public communication is concerned.
Notably, to date there is yet conclusive story about the whereabouts of the missing airplane. Worse still, the company has not been seen by the public to be making some headway in trying to unravel the mystery. Actually, this is a classic case of incomplete written story. The families certainly are waiting for the answers three years later. Although the company lacks the investigating powers (as the investigations were being done by the state but now closed) it will still continue to bear the PR burden. Actually, this continues to expose their soft underbelly of their commitment to matters passenger safety and wellbeing.
The company issued a statement one hour after the plane was reported missing. This was seen by many as a PR flaw especially in an era of digital communication where information is available almost instantly. The one hour gap could have caused a lot of damage to its image. To the public, the company appeared disorganized and such a critical case could have been relayed to the public promptly. By delaying for over an hour, it could have created unnecessary anxiety, tension and speculation among the public. In fact, a lot of conspiracy theories came up afterwards. Notably, therefore, the company was seriously missing in action to be the first to break the news to the public.
If there is something the company did poorly as far as PR is concerned, was attempting to cover up the story. There were reports that the company was underwhelming keeping in touch with the families of the victims after the incident (Culbertson, 2016). It was crucial and humanly expected of the company to sincerely show empathy to the victim’s families but that was not the case. This, once again, painted the company in bad light as one that does not care about the welfare of its customers.
The company could have made some positive headway amid the crisis. Notably, the following is the manner in which the situation could have been handled:
Normally crises can temporarily destabilize a company but with an effective plan in place, most of the time, it will triumph; with the public opinion largely in her favor. The Malaysian Airplane company needed to have applied the Public information model (Toughsledding, 2008). In this model, firms can use it to ensure only truthful and accurate story is told to the public. There should be no room for cover ups or propaganda for a business concern lest you risk being viewed as dishonest. Damage control is often more costly than proactive management of public opinion.
Although it is beyond its powers to investigate the matter by itself alone, it must be seen to be pursuing the matter to its conclusive end. The families of the victims are still waiting to be told about the whereabouts of the loved ones. Therefore, it is imperative for the company to pile pressure on the authorities to have the matter resolved. Otherwise conspiracy theories will still dominate and may continue to hurt the company’s business performance.
Most companies, after a serious crisis has hit them, the next move is often to rebrand; renaming the company, changing the logo among others. Although that may work, as far as public relations is concerned, but largely it may be seen as a move to abandon the matter; especially in this case that has not been completed. Experts do recommend that rebranding should be strategic and carefully done so as not to be seen as a scape-goat tactic.
Public relation is not a privilege for the few rather it should be compulsory to everyone in the company. Regular trainings in this area will equip the staff with PR skills essential to drive the business. Admittedly, the airline company is currently struggling financially as the business performance has dipped courtesy of the crisis. It is important for the company to integrate PR training as part of its recovery plan. This will also double up as a marketing tool for their struggling business
Essentially, therefore, Public Relations Management should be given the greatest attention by any company that wants to remain profitable in business. How the public views the company plays a critical role in the sustainability of its business. Perhaps other companies can learn something from the Malaysian airline situation. Therefore, a sound PR plan is critical for the company to remain in business.
The Week.(2017).MH370 conspiracy theories: What happened to the missing plane? Available at: https://www.theweek.co.uk/mh370/58037/mh370-conspiracy-theories-what-happened-to-the-missing-plane
Bass, D. (no year). Public Relations: Core Principles and Strategies that Contribute to the Bottom Line. Available at: https://contracostamosquito.com/PDF/article_seven_77th.pdf
Root, G.N.(2017). 10 Principles of Public Relations. Available at: https://smallbusiness.chron.com/10-principles-public-relations-10661.html
Culbertson, A. (2016). Malaysia Airlines admits it 'made mistakes' over handling of missing MH370. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/653727/Malaysia-Airlines-made-mistakes-handling-MH370
Toughsledding. (2008).The ‘4 Models’ of public relations practice: How far have you evolved? Available at: https://toughsledding.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/the-4-models-of-public-relations-practice-how-far-have-you-evolved/
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