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How communicating in crisis went wrong for M'sia

COMMENT In the very specialised field of disaster communications, there is one cardinal rule.  Do no harm. It’s a rule that the teams communicating the crisis of disappeared Malaysia Flight MH370 did not seem to fully comprehend.  

While there were many things that they did right, their actions were overshadowed by what went wrong and, despite Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Abdul Rajak seeming to sincerely feel the anguish of the families, puzzlingly, the actual communications effort from others did not reflect it.

In a crisis, the expectations placed on government officials are at their highest. This is the one time that the public has very little tolerance for error. After all, if you can’t trust your government in a disaster, who can you trust?  

Unfortunately, the needs of the public and media in a crisis often clash with the traditional “knee-jerk” reaction of officials trying to control the information coming out. It’s an all too common scene that you see happen all over the world and through many different disasters.  

So what went wrong with communications surrounding the disappearance of MH370 and how could this have been done better?

I’m not privy to everything the Malaysian government and airlines communications teams may or may not have done but that doesn’t actually matter. From thousands of kilometres away, I can tell that the perception exists that they withheld information and failed the families during a critical time. In the world of crisis communications, perceptions can be killers.  

When I hear media complaining about the lack of transparency, families stating they don’t believe in what they’ve been told and celebrities suggesting boycotts of Malaysia, it’s quite clear that the communications team has lost all credibility with the ones they serve.

While many have suggested that the disappearance of MH370 is an unprecedented situation for the crisis team, nothing could be further from the truth. The accident, itself, may be unprecedented but communicating through it is not. A good crisis communications team should be able to handle any disaster scenario.  

In my experience of leading teams through a number of disasters, I learned that the disaster type is not that relevant. Good planning, team training and a good process will see you through anything. Certainly, as a team, you’ll be adjusting your process to the individual event but, overall, disaster communications are quite similar from event to event because the “intent” of your role does not change.

However, much like the maligned pilots of MH370, we cannot always determine intent from actions. Did Malaysian officials intend to mislead the public, create barriers to information and increase the suffering of the families? Probably not. Did they fail at meeting the expectations of the public and media and the needs of the families? Unfortunately, yes, and these failures increased the dismay of an entire nation and secondarily traumatised the relatives of the missing.  

Learning the hard way

These types of failures highlight the importance of crisis communications and how often it is underestimated and done badly. Many governments learn the hard way that they were unprepared for the communications side of a disaster even though they were well-prepared for an operational response. Ironically, no matter how good your operational response is, if your communications are poor, the public will perceive that you have failed on both accounts.  

Without competent disaster communications leadership, any company or government tends to flounder in the very harsh sea of public scrutiny. Disasters are a time when organisations are put “under the microscope” exposing any flaws very quickly. To be fair, the finding of flaws would happen to any organization or person, for that matter, when scrutinised to that degree.    

So, what can be done differently for the future?

First of all, it helps to have a healthy respect for information voids. Information voids, no matter what the reason, are deep, dark pits that most organizations never climb out of. The public and media will assume that, if you’re not talking, then you’re hiding something. It’s human nature and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Disasters provide a number of very painful learning lessons that, in the end, can help improve crisis communications for future events. Without this pain and scrutiny, nothing gets better and officials make no changes. With this pain and scrutiny, significant improvements often occur to avoid a repeat of the first experience.

Good crisis communications should deliver critical information in a timely manner, ease fear and anxiety, comfort the people impacted, dispel rumours, assist the media and support the responders. Most importantly, even if you have no information to share, you must still keep communicating.  

In North America, and no doubt in many other countries, we are used to communicating even when there is an on-going investigation and information is limited due to legal restrictions or other issues.

We use this time as an opportunity to reach out to the general public through media outlets which have the ability to touch large audiences. We share what we know about the event but we also share our knowledge base because, during a disaster, people are highly interested and motivated to learn.  

As an example, I participated in the communications response to a devastating forest fire which claimed more than 200 homes. Prior to that event, an educational brochure teaching people how to create a green zone around their homes to resist fire simply sat on shelves, gathering dust.  During the event, that same brochure flew off the shelves and had to be reprinted to meet the demand.  People were hungry for information and scared about losing their own homes.  

When experiencing an information void, there is much that can be shared. Sometimes, we talk about the search and rescue teams and the challenges they face. Other times, we provide preparedness advice, talk about why there is a void in news or offer insight into disaster technology.  

Listening is also important

But, just as important, we also listen. We want to hear from the public and media, to understand their concerns and to provide information that helps them.

During the nearly dozen disasters I’ve managed, we often operated a communications center 24 hours a day, set up public hotlines so anyone could call in, day or night, arranged for “town hall” meetings with the public, provided scheduled media conferences three to four times per day and issued written updates in between those conferences, if needed. It took a team of approximately 10 well-trained communicators to accomplish this.  

In addition to the media conferences, as a team leader, I sometimes provided up to 100 personal media interviews per day. My staff and I would have a running bet on how many times my cup of tea would need to be re-heated because I was on the phone so much. Many days, I never finished the cup of tea I started in the morning.  

The Canadian government agency I worked for at that time had to instill some limits on its crisis teams. Shifts of work had to be no longer than 14 hours per day during an emergency. After two weeks in a disaster, you had to receive one day off. To accomplish this, communicators were rotated through shifts and duties to cover off the 24-hour operation.

Prior to a disaster, my team had go-kits of personal items always packed and stored in our vehicles in case of a call out. The team came from many different departments of the much larger provincial government (a province that is about four times the size of Malaysia) which meant that they had to travel from their locations and then meet at the command centre for the disaster.  

Our mandate was to have a fully-functioning communications center set-up and running within 45 minutes of wheels down. This meant that, within 45 minutes of landing, we were responding to media calls. Usually, we were located close, but not too close, to the actual disaster which meant always setting up in a building you’d never been in before.

My communications team was hand-picked and trained. Some personalities are well-suited for this kind of work and others are not. Ultimately, this is a critical team that must function at a very high level due to its serious responsibilities. This is not a marketing team.  There is no “spin” in crisis communications.

Clearly, without preparation, plans, protocols, exercises and a specialized communications team that provides sound advice to officials, a disaster can become an extremely challenging event with poor outcomes for the very government in charge of it. Regrettably, the price is even higher for the victims who suffer because of that mismanagement.

While careers may end for some officials, the families of flight MH370 have to live with an experience that has shattered their world and their trust.  

There is no comfort for them in knowing that the deaths of their loved ones will likely prompt life-saving changes in aviation as well as important changes in the way their government handles future disasters. Right now, there is just deep, unrelenting pain that was made worse by information dispersal that did not appreciate the first rule of “do no harm”.  

My heart goes out to each and every one of them.

NANCY ARGYLE is one of Canada's most experienced disaster communicators. She is also a university lecturer.

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