Malaysia Airlines struggling with press

Response to lost aircraft a mess partly because of inexperience in dealing with Western media, says expert.

Malaysia Airlines has been criticised for its handling of news announcements after its airliner disappeared. Photo / AP
Malaysia Airlines has been criticised for its handling of news announcements after its airliner disappeared. Photo / AP

Malaysia Airlines faces an uphill public relations battle as it struggles to get on the front foot after the disappearance of MH370.

The airline's response to the loss of its aircraft in the first three days was described as a mess, partly because of inexperience in dealing with Western journalists, said veteran aviation industry commentator Geoffrey Thomas.

Furious relatives among the 227 passengers reportedly complained they had been "treated worse than dogs", at one point storming out of a hotel room where they had been taken in Beijing and starting a petition to demand more information.Media briefings by Malaysia Airlines had initially been fleeting, with spokesmen not taking questions.

Thomas, the editor-in-chief of AirlineRatings.com, said the lack of international experience among Malaysia Airlines' public relations was a problem. "Their PR department has been missing in action. It's when something like this happens you really need them," he said.

The airline's representatives were accustomed to dealing with a more compliant local media, not journalists from around the world who were more demanding.

"From what we can see the handling of this has been very badly confused, and the amount of contradictory information coming from them is extraordinary. It's a mess."

As is commonly the case after aircraft accidents, the airline's website has reduced branding and has been stripped of promotional information, instead featuring press releases about the missing plane on its front page.

Initial releases, the first of which was posted five hours after the last contact with MH370, had basic details about the missing plane, the sequence of events and expressed regret. By the time of the sixth release 24 hours after last contact, the airline asked all Malaysians and people around the world to pray for those on board.

Yesterday it said the care and comfort of the passengers' families was the utmost concern as the search continued. The airline said it was bringing relatives to Kuala Lumpur, although the travel arrangements are being kept confidential.

"This is to protect the privacy and wellbeing of the families during this difficult time and to respect their space," it said.

"Malaysia Airlines' primary focus at this point in time is to care for the families of the passengers and crew of MH370. This means providing them with timely information, travel facilities, accommodation, meals, medical and emotional support. The costs for these are all borne by Malaysia Airlines."Thomas said Asiana Airlines' handling of its crash at San Francisco last July, in which three people were killed, had been a debacle.

In that case the South Korean airline was also penalised US$500,000 for failing to help family members of passengers on the flight.

Loss-making Malaysia Airlines is struggling to match new budget operators, with margins eroded on popular routes.

In the first day of trading after the plane's disappearance the company's shares tumbled by 20 per cent before recovering to be down 4 per cent at the close of trading.

Disaster plan a starting point, says Fyfe

Former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe says airlines have a checklist for handling disasters but can operate beyond it.

Fyfe won praise for his handling of the aftermath of an Air NZ plane crash at Perpignan in 2008 in which four airline staff died along with three others.

Former Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe.
Former Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe.

While he could not comment on Malaysia Airlines' handling of its missing plane, he said his airline had regular disaster drills which helped it cope with the crash in France.

"Air New Zealand did have a safety and emergency manual with a checklist and every three to six months we would run full scale emergency exercises," he said. "We had a number of decisions to make [following the crash] but the framework was well established with people who were well trained and mobilised to support families."

However, the decision to take a leading role and accompany relatives to the crash site wasn't in the manual.

"It was quite a hard decision at the time - was I better off sitting in the control room directing all the activity or was it better to get to the accident site as soon as possible with family members because at that stage we weren't sure whether everyone had lost their lives. That was a personal decision."

Fyfe, who retired from Air NZ in 2012, said airlines had to be upfront and open with any information to the media and families otherwise people started filling the void with speculation.

Air NZ got first reports of the Perpignan crash shortly before 7am and had its first media conference at 8am.

"We made a decision that we wanted the media to be able to look confidently to us as the primary source of information and have that belief that as any new information came to light we would share it."

Air NZ had between 300 and 400 "special assistance" team members trained in support techniques. In the case of a major incident the airline would allocate one of those team members to each family who had relatives involved to "give them confidence they have access to an open timely flow of information to them as anything emerges".

The airline was able to deploy a special assistance team to the West Coast in 2010 after the Pike River coal mine blast.

Fyfe said after an aircraft accident airlines had to take practical steps including confirming the passenger manifest, securing aircraft maintenance information and any surveillance tapes.

Airlines would help other carriers with "best practice" information and they could also call in specialist crisis management firms.

- NZ Herald

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